In a recent text exchange, my sister in Israel wrote to me how worried she was about “the fire and water onslaught of the US.”
I answered, “The fire and water of our political life? Oh you mean hurricanes, floods and Divine retribution.”
I thought I was being funny, diverging from her concern about the natural disasters she was reading about from across the ocean. I was also poking a bit of fun at the notion (which I wasn’t sure she believed in) that God brings disasters as a form of punishment.
First she replied, “I didn’t say that. LOL.”
Then she added, “I was thinking of the wildfires out west. Really scary stuff.”
And the next answer was sobering. And long (for a text):
No, seriously, I really don’t like all this “G-d is punishing you” stuff. If human beings could truly understand G-d, the world would be very different. And I think G-d, by definition is too big for us to understand. Plus, G-d MADE the laws of nature, so that’s how things work. Geez, just get out there and help people! I have many friends in Houston and the stories were crazy, but the amazing unity was so beautiful.
Ouch. My orthodox sister was speaking the language of Kaplanian religious naturalism! Her description of how God works in the world is similar to that of the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordecai Kaplan, who taught that we should all live as if there is a God. Reconstructionism teaches that God does not intervene in our lives in supernatural ways — that is, outside of the laws of nature. Nature itself is a divine miracle, including its destructive forces as well as its majestic beauty. And human beings need to become partners with God, and bring our humanity to heal, save, comfort, inspire, cheer, and help one another. My traditional sister summed up Kaplan’s approach to God in a text.
This month of Elul, when we are examining our souls, is considered to be a time of deep searching. We may be searching our past actions for mistakes that need correction. We may be searching our guilty conscience for ways to make amends.
This is also a time to seek out the Divine, to come closer to God, to be reminded of all that is godly, to aspire to be better. The letters of Elul — in Hebrew Aleph-Lamed-Vav-Lamed — are an acronym for a well-known verse in Song of Songs, Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” We yearn for a deep connection beyond ourselves and we seek assurance that we are loved. What we find will probably surprise us.
It’s no surprise that my sister and I were dancing around our individual approaches to God at this time of year. Since we are both spiritually attuned people, we were having fun sharing our inner thoughts. What was surprising to me is that I used language I would never express (God is punishing us) and she used the language that I often articulate (Don’t leave it up to God).
The miracle of teshuvah — the practice of repentance/return that is at the heart of the High Holy Days — lies in the ways its surprises us. Like the call of the shofar, at this time of year we ought to wake up, to be surprised, and to be shaken out of our habitual ways of doing things.
Consider the ways you can open yourself up to notice the surprises surrounding you. Consider the ways that you can reach out and surprise someone with an apology or change of heart. Consider how you might surprise yourself by changing an established behavior.
I hope you will consider joining us at Selichot Saturday night for a surprisingly fun night of cooking, eating, and preparing for Rosh Hashanah.
Wishing you and those you love Shanah tovah, a year that brings goodness to you, to us, and to our sweet, good and still unredeemed world.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Below you will find links to recommended organizations that are helping victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Remember that in addition to teshuva (and tefila, prayer), tzedaka (the obligation to give to others) is a key component that gives meaning to the Jewish New Year. Give generously!