I have refrained from publicly posting any thoughts and reflections about the fatal and tragic accident that took place just outside of our synagogue building on Friday night during Kol Nidre services. This accident, which took the life of one of our beloved teachers at the DuBow Preschool, Esther Ohayon, and critically injured her dear teenage daughter, Orly Ohayon, a graduate of our Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, made for an especially emotional Yom Kippur and led to the entire close-knit Jacksonville Jewish community to grieve. I refrained for sharing thoughts because following such a tragic event, there are no words that can offer comfort. There are no words that will make it better. There are no words that will bring Esther back to us. The only thing we can do is hold our loved ones close, and hold each other close, and support Orly and the Ohayon family during their time of need. I encourage all to donate to support the Ohayon family here. May we pray for Orly’s full and speedy recovery and may God comfort her, her entire family, and the Jewish community, among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
I also see the irony that as I was speaking Friday night about our own challenges with talking to God and believing in God, this accident happened, causing us to question further. However, the whole point of my sermon was that we turn to God at the high points and low points of our lives. Sometimes, during times of grief, when we are the most authentic versions of ourselves, we are finally able to let God in. I hope that my thoughts and reflections allow us to find God — and wrestle with God — during this time of communal grief.
My Kol Nidre sermon, entitled “Are You There God?” can be found on the Sermon page of this website. You can also access a PDF version of the sermon text here: Kol Nidre 5774 – Are You There God? and a link to the audio file to listen to the sermon here. The text of the sermon is below:
Are You There God?
Two-year-olds are challenging, to say the least. They ask a lot of questions and won’t settle for any answer. Every answer is followed up with another question. Apparently, so I have come to learn, they also hate going to sleep. These days, our two-year-old daughter Cayla tries to stay up as late as possible. Any bedtime is too early. Whenever we turn out the lights, she tries to turn them back on. As long as Mommy and Abba are awake, she wants to be awake as well. Often, she tries to stay up much later than us! This came to a head over the summer.
One Shabbat afternoon, Cayla, Andrea and I returned to the Jacksonville Jewish Center for Shabbat Mincha (afternoon service.) After dinner, I remained for Maariv (evening service) and Havdalah (conclusion of Sabbath service.) However, it was already way past Cayla’s bedtime, so Andrea put Cayla in the stroller and they began walking home. It was already dark and Cayla was quite upset. “I don’t want to go to sleep,” she screamed. “You don’t have to yet,” my wife responded. “Not until we get home.” “But why did you turn off the lights,” my daughter asked, referring to how dark it was outside. And this is when it got interesting. “I didn’t turn out the lights,” she said. “God did.” Well that changed everything for Cayla…
God? “Who is God?” she asked. “What is God?” she asked. “Where is God?” she asked. All my wife Andrea could think about was the fact that the first time our daughter had any theological questions about God, her father, me, the rabbi, wasn’t around to answer them. She spent the next couple of weeks asking me everything she could think of: Did I believe in God? What did God look like? and how come we couldn’t see God? Everyday she reminded me that God was everywhere. Every place we drove to, every new room we entered, she would announce in a proud voice “God is here.”
It is amazing to experience God through the eyes of a two-year-old. With such innocence, with such joy, without being aware of the suffering of the innocent or the success of the evil. It’s amazing to experience God with such optimism, appreciating the small miracles of everyday, seeing God in the small amphibians and reptiles that crawl in the front yard, the flowers, and trees, and grass still wet from the regular Florida 4:00 pm rainstorm; she sees God in everything. We, on the other hand, are consumed by the challenges in this world. We see violence. We see war. We see chemical weapons used to killed men, women, and children. We see good people begging for food. We see young children just as innocent as my daughter suffering, and we can’t understand it. We yearn for her innocence. We yearn to see God in such a way, to see the blessings, the holiness, in everything.
There was a recent interview on NPR with a young devout Evangelical man. He prayed daily. He worshipped. He was devoted to his faith. Yet, he woke up one day and no longer believed. There was no incident that caused his lack of faith, but he just gave up believing. He woke up and decided there was no God and left his church, left his faith, and began to wander.
The irony is that so many of us, as Jews, aren’t sure we believe in God. We aren’t sure what that God looks like, if there is a God at all, but we participate. In fact, we come to synagogue in spite of our lack of belief. We don’t necessarily come here to find God. We come here for a lot of reasons, but for many, God is not one of them. It is easy then to forget that this is a spiritual home. With all the amazing programming going on at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, it is easy for us to forget that God is present, that we come here trying to find God.
Part of showing up on the High Holy Days is to awaken from our slumber, much like our patriarch Jacob. Following Jacob’s dream of ladders and staircases with angels going up and down, being present in the Heavens, but Divine beings being present all around us as well, he awakens from his dream and declares in the book of Genesis, Adonai B’Makom Hazeh, v’Anochi, Lo yadati, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”
We walk around like zombies doing our routine, and come to synagogue because it’s a part of our routine. We do not because we know God is here, but because we hope to find God here. We open up a machzor, a siddur, a prayerbook, reciting liturgy that is not ours, in a language that is unfamiliar to many, being sung to a melody that we recognize, but can’t sing along to. And here, we expect to find God?
The truth is we come to synagogue to find each other. We come to synagogue to socialize. We come to synagogue to learn and to ensure our children learn. We come to synagogue to see our children recite the prayers or so that we can prove that we still remember them, that the melodies linger.
But we also sit in synagogue thinking that a wonderful service is one that is over before noon on a Saturday, that a sermon is good as long as it is under a certain number of minutes. We sit here, looking at our watches, wondering what will be served at the break-the-fast, even if our fast day just began. And I say we, because I do it too.
I don’t always find God in the synagogue. I don’t always have a spiritual experience during services. I too sometimes look at my watch and I too am thinking about what’s for dinner tomorrow night. Yet, if we stop looking for God, if we stop being spiritual seekers, if God is not present, then there is no point in showing up. We could have the most amazing programming, but God is at the center and core of all that we do as a synagogue and how we act as individuals. For belief in God, or struggling with our belief in God, is the reason why we continue to do. It is the reason we strive to connect. Not only do we rarely find God in the synagogue, or rarely look for God in the synagogue, we rarely talk about God in the synagogue. While we give plenty of sermons about Israel, social justice, and community, we don’t really speak about God.
We don’t talk about God and thus, God is simultaneously the reason that so many come to synagogue and the reason that so many can’t find meaning in synagogue. God is the reason why we come. God is also the reason why so many of us don’t come back. The old joke goes: Schwartz would always come to synagogue to talk to God. Goldberg, on the other hand, would always come to synagogue to talk to Schwartz. But now we must figure out how to talk to God, where to find God, and how to know God. Are we concerned that our vision of God may be different than our neighbor’s? Are we concerned that the way in which we communicate may be different? Maybe we should take solace in the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, found of the Jewish Renewal Movement who said, “I don’t believe in the same God that you don’t believe in.”
Maybe we are uncomfortable with God, because we are uncomfortable with the unknown. We are uncomfortable with that which is based on belief, rather than knowledge. We are uncomfortable because God is hard. We want a relationship with the essence of the universe, with the Creator, with the Divine being, the Holy of Holies, to be easy, but it is not. We have no signs of burning bushes. We hear no angels calling out our names from the Heavens. There is no strong hand and outstretched arm reaching down to us. So we give up. We stop looking. We give up on God and give up on belief. Yet, as I’ve said before, we aren’t simply supposed to look for God. We aren’t simply supposed to talk to God. We are supposed to wrestle with God. As B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, the Children of Yisrael, of he who wrestles who the Divine, we too are the Children who are supposed to Wrestle with God. So let us wrestle.
After all, talking is how we relate to friends and family, but also how we relate to strangers and co-workers. Talking is how we communicate, but that in and of itself is not a sacred act. Wrestling is physical. Wrestling is intimate. Wrestling brings us closer to God and allows us to see the God that is already present.
We like to live in a world of black and white, and God, the essence of this world, isn’t so black and white. We suffer illness and see death, and wonder where God is. We see violence, injustice, we see darkness and wonder where God is. How I wish sometimes that I was just like my two year old daughter, to see God in everything, everywhere, no questions asked. Sometimes we don’t feel God’s presence. We don’t feel connected to God. If you don’t feel connected to God, then I have failed. Then we as a community have failed. But it just means that we have not found the right entry point. Close the Machzor. Close your eyes. Find God. God may not be in the haunting melodies of Kol Nidre. God may not be in the fixed liturgy, but the fixed liturgy is supposed to help us write our own liturgy, create our own personal prayers. As a child, the Kotzker Rebbe, the Hasidic leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, was inquisitive just like my daughter. As a five year old, he asked his father, “where is God?” His father responded just as we responded to Cayla, just as our teachers respond to our students, just as our parents responded to us. “God is Everywhere,” his father said. But the brilliant five year old added, “God is only where you let God in.”
God is only where we let God in. Will we? Will we let God into this space? Will we let God into our lives?
We are uncomfortable with our own personal beliefs because they change, they fluctuate. They aren’t set in stone, but they don’t need to be. I admit that I was a bit of a pompous know-it-all rabbinical student at the beginning of my years at seminary. Taking a class with prominent theologian Rabbi Neil Gilman, he referenced a theological idea. I was quick to raise my hand and call him out. You see, I had already read one of his well-known works on theology, Sacred Fragments. “Rabbi Gilman,” I called out. “How can you say that? You said something else in section three of your book.” He thought about it for a while and then responded with a smile. “I wrote that book a decade ago. I don’t believe in that any longer.” We laughed, but the brilliance of his joke was profound. We don’t have to believe in a God that was the God of our childhood, of our youth, or even the God that we turned to months ago. We can’t believe in the God that we believed in when we were two years old, because we see the world differently. It is only natural that the events in our lives, the high’s and the low’s, the births and the deaths, the smiles and tears, the light and darkness, impact our relationship, and impact our own personal covenant with God. According to Jay Michaelson, God is ultimately a projection of our deepest wants and fears. After all, what is deeper than these stirrings of the heart?
A shift in belief and in our relationship with the Divine does not change one’s ability to believe. We just have to be brave enough, humble enough, to bare our whole selves to God. Not necessarily for a response. Not necessarily for a change. But for the strength and courage to face whatever is next. To face the future. To experience life and to celebrate life. It makes perfect sense that we connect to God at times when we truly reveal ourselves. At times of mourning. At times of illness. This is why the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Mi Sheberach prayers seem to be the most sacred parts of our service for many. We may not be in mourning, but we are silent during Kaddish out of respect for those who mourn. We may not regularly participate in prayer or sing along with the liturgy, but during the Mi Sheberach, we rise from our seats and add the name of someone we know in need of healing to our communal supplication. At these times, we give ourselves to God. We remove the layers and we are the truest version of ourselves. We are real and in that authenticity we search for God. In that authenticity we find God.
I remember when I truly revealed myself to God, when I truly prayed. Truth is we Jews don’t pray all that often. I know some of us in this room would beg to differ. After all we have three worship services daily, every morning, afternoon, and evening. How can I say we don’t pray often? I think we daven a lot. We daven quite a bit. We use that word to describe the fixed liturgy, the familiar melodies, the mumbles around the room, the bending and bowing, the swaying back-and-forth. Sure we open up the prayer book a lot, but we do not pray enough. We rely on others’ words so that we do not have to focus on our own. We share communal thoughts and ignore our own individual thoughts. We use these barriers so that we avoid revealing ourselves. We make time to daven daily, but we don’t make enough time to pray, to truly talk to God, to reveal ourselves.
When Andrea and I were dating, I had known that her father was was ill for a while. While in college we learned that he had Huntington’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that eventually took his life. When someone has HD, there is a fifty percent chance that the mutated gene is passed on to a child. If it is passed on to a child, then the child will eventually become symptomatic. If the individual doesn’t have the gene, then he or she will never develop the disease and will never pass it on to a child. While we were engaged, Andrea decided to go through genetic testing to see if she had the gene, and thus, to see if she would develop this neurological disorder.
There were many steps to this process, with me waking up early each morning to daven, along the way. The final step was when Andrea got a blood test. We waited two weeks before heading to the office early on a Friday morning for the results. I davened that morning as I do every morning, but then, then I started to pray. I began to reveal myself to God. Wrapped in tallit and tefillin, I started to cry. I begged God to protect her. I asked God to cause me to suffer so she would not have to.
We were blessed that day to find out that Andrea does not carry the gene, will not develop the disease, and cannot pass it on to our children. Yet, as I think about that experience, and that powerful connection with God, I also recognize that I was praying for a result, even though the blood test had already been taken, even though she was born with or without this mutated gene. My prayers did not change the outcome. My prayers did not cause Divine intervention. But my prayers comforted me. My prayers led me closer to God. Turning to God, regardless of the outcome, was my safety net. God was my refuge. God is my refuge. I let God in, and God was there, because I let God in.
For me, a world with God present, with a belief in the Divine, is a stronger world, is a better world. There are those who try to use facts to prove God doesn’t exist. That though is the beauty of faith. No one can prove or disprove anything for us. We believe what we believe. And it is holy. It is sacred, because it is our belief. No one can tell us our relationship with God is not valid, for it is ours. No one can tell us how to pray, or when to pray. Instead, we can simply support each other in our beliefs, in our faith, believing that God is present, as long as we let God be present.
Despite the chaos, despite the fear, despite the heartache, the world is stronger, our lives are happier, as a result of letting God in. In the words of one of my teachers and colleagues, Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, “This life in not for the perfect. It is not for the flawless. it is not for the whole… but don’t run from your imperfections. Don’t hide from your brokenness. Broken bones re-grow stronger at the very location where they are broken… Our God is a God of shattered hearts, who despite the challenges of life, invites us to pick ourselves up and continue to move forward.
If we search for God and truly come face-to-face with God during the high’s and low’s of lives, when we expose our true selves, then there is no greater time to search for God, to find God, to talk to God, to let God in, then on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we reveal ourselves, with all of our blemishes and imperfections. We reveal ourselves to each other, with our communal confession. We reveal ourselves to God, with our private admissions of guilt. We strip away that which is fake. We remove the self that we project to others and instead bring to the forefront, our true selves, the part of us that we don’t share with God enough.
Despite the confessions and atoning, the rabbis claim that Yom Kippur is one of the happiest days on the calendar. After admitting our wrongdoings, we relax as the weight of the past is off our shoulders. We celebrate. The Talmud speaks of women dancing in the field on Yom Kippur afternoon out of delight. Rabbi Sharon Brous, rabbi at the renowned synagogue in Los Angeles, IKAR, spoke about her first Yom Kippur at the then newly founded congregation. After the melody of Kol Nidre caused the hair on arms to spike and chills to run down spines, the entire congregation broke out in impromptu singing and dancing. Singing the yai, dai, dai’s of a niggun, a wordless melody, over and over again, the entire congregation formed a circle that floated throughout the room. Rabbi Brous said she found it odd at first, but then embraced it.
Such song, such joy, such prayer, such happiness is what Yom Kippur is supposed to be. We tend to find God, or cling to God, or search for God, during the doom and gloom, during the low moments of our lives. Yet Yom Kippur is truly a celebration. We celebrate life in the New Year. We celebrate ourselves. So let find God in the happiness and celebrate God as well.
Cayla still regularly reminds us at the dinner table that “God is Everywhere.” I smile because it’s cute. I smile because I envy such belief. I smile because I feel inspired. I smile because my two-year-old has become my teacher, reminding me that God is here, that God is present, that God is a part of our lives. She reminds me that God is why we are alive and why we wake up to experience a new day. We need that reminder, especially at Yom Kippur, especially when beginning anew. But God is only here if we let God in.
So let us be brave enough, be willing enough, to search for God, and to celebrate with God in the year ahead, Let us be willing to let God into our lives. May we wrestle with God. May we find God. And in the new year, find ourselves in the process. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky