What counts most?

May 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion is all about counting: taking a census of the Israelites as they head toward the Promised Land. At first blush, a census does not seem to be the most interesting topic. For most of us, it’s right up there with accounting rules and seating charts.

Hear, for example, Eli Horowitz’s reflection on this portion: “The Bible is, of course, full of excitement: fighting and feasts and sex and weird food rules and weird sex rules. It’s a real page-turner, no doubt. But amid those rollicking good times, every now and then there’s a…pause. A moment of reflection, or a meditation on core values – or, in this case, the logistical procedure for a regional census, followed by detailed results of said census and also some discussion of campground zoning.”

“Of course, that’s just a rough summary,” he continues. “The actual text gets much juicier. I mean, this census isn’t going to just organize itself, is it? Of course not, and don’t worry – the Lord has thought of everything. For example, you were probably wondering who was going to help Moses and Aaron count the members of the Asher clan; well that’d be Ocran’s son Pagiel.”[1]

He admits that the portion is probably “sounding a little dull” and, as a result, he finds that he is “left looking for lessons, the essential truths at the heart of this seemingly mundane recitation.”[2]

That would make two of us. What should we make of this accounting?

In the case of Horowitz, he asks a series of rhetorical questions: “Does this passage teach us the benefits of taking stock, counting up who we are and what we have? Or is it, perhaps, a meditation on neighborhood dynamics, urban planning, the diverse roles that make up a community? Maybe. It’s possible,” he writes. [3]

But he doesn’t sound convinced: “Maybe, “ he writes, “what we’re reading here is just a reminder that sometimes things are a little…boring. Some days you might find yourself spending hours rearranging your living room, or alphabetizing your record albums, or choosing which among your children will serve as specialized ark-porters.”[4] Sometimes life involves rather dull moments, it seems.

But I find that I am not so moved by this description. My own sense, based on my own lived experience, is that even the mundane moments have the potential to be transcendent. The rearranging might give you a new view on things. The alphabetizing might reacquaint you with who you were when you bought those albums. The choosing among your children forces a re-examination of your relationship with them.

Many of us, in fact, find greater resonance in the mystic viewpoint: the mystics hold that the world is suffused with meaning, a glorious transcendence that we, on rare occasions, are most privileged to witness.

In search of such meaning, then, perhaps I could tell you a few small facts: Did you know that when counting a minyan — the ten Jews needed for a quorum to pray — that it is traditional not to count each person but to say ‘not one,’ ‘not two’ and so on? Or, alternatively, to use a prayer or verse that has ten words in it, assigning each person a word in the verse until the quorum is reached?

The reason for this custom of not-counting reaches back to this week’s Torah portion: Jews are only to be counted when God asks for a census; to do so otherwise might lead to a plague. We may number our days — as the Psalmist exhorts us — but we may not number our Jews, at least not until God says so.

Yet, of course, we want to. Counting defines our reality: to not count is to not be present, to not be noticed, whereas ‘to count’ is to matter.

This issue is precisely why Reform Jews and other liberal denominations count women in the minyan: the women need to matter as much as the men. The women should also be counted, noticed, and heard. The men are not the only ones who ‘count’ in our congregation.

And further, we find that we want to count our households. We need to have an accurate count for the purposes of budgeting and planning. Our congregation’s size also determines the rate of dues for the Union for Reform Judaism. We need to know who’s in and who’s out, who has moved and who has stayed invested in our community.

In that sense, then, it seems most appropriate that we encounter this portion in the week immediately preceding our annual meeting. This coming Wednesday is the date of our annual census: we number our households and take a vote on the basis of that number, setting the bounds of our budget, and defining the congregation’s priorities.

And in that context, an accurate count will define what we can and cannot do: we need to know what is in the bank accounts, how many households will contribute to our shared community, and what kinds of dreams we may dream.

Yet even more is at stake than that. This week is, in fact, a big week for us, for you and for me, for we are entering into a longer-term contract together.

What that means, of course, is that our reality will change. My role has already shifted in the past few months, changing bit by bit as the congregation looks out over a long stretch of unbroken time with the same rabbi.

These days, I am less and less of a logistical administrator and more and more of a spiritual leader. These days, I am called on for more and more pastoral care. That’s wonderful news, really, and I am honored to serve.

It is, at the core of it, an expression of trust: I’ll be here for you when it counts.

[1] Eli Horowitz, “B’midbar (‘In the Desert’),” Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, Roger Bennett, ed. (New York: Workman Publishing, 2013), pp. 244-5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

More than a story about God

December 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Whenever there is a catastrophe, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ I would wish, sometimes, that my fellow-clergy were less confident of interpreting God’s will as a sound-bite for the media.

It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.

It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.

And there is also the position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being, a statement of belief that tragedy would not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, would all stay clear of us if we were to ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day.’

We had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.

In that case, God plays the role of symbolic placeholder in our prayers. A placeholder the same sense that a ‘zero’ is a placeholder: it holds the space open but is not filled with real content.

Why should we care about theology?

What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman or as an invisible force? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God? Why should we care about theology, especially at a time like this?

Theology defines what is possible in our lives.

To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not.

This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.

So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues. Some of it was his own doing: by all accounts, he was one seriously annoying kid. But his brothers’ reaction was well out of proportion to the reality.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, he is second only to Pharaoh.

He could have them killed, of course, or imprisoned. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, weeping:

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’”

So, when Joseph says, ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth,’ I always wonder, how does he know? This is Torah, of course, so of course he knows. But if he were your brother or neighbor, would you not wonder: how does he know?

Perhaps he cannot prove it one way or another, but his optimism seems to be a useful choice.

But there’s still a problem here: we are still left with that canard, ‘it was God’s will.’ If we accept that the good things that happen are God’s will, do we not have to accept the bad as well? Otherwise, we start creating a dualism in God: this part is the ‘good’ god and this part is the ‘bad’ god.

So let’s return to the Joseph story: as it happens, his understanding of God changes as he grows older, and his theology improves.

In next week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years later. And we see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust. After their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. He is, after all, still that powerful. And did he not test them before they reunited? They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

And what is Joseph’s reaction?

He tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

This is a more nuanced theology than what we saw earlier. Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

So, ask yourself: what kind of world do you want to live in, one in which these things do happen, or one in which they do not? Ask yourself: do we know the reasons why such things occur? Ask yourself: is there something we can do about it?

I will leave it to you to decide whether more or less guns are needed, whether better access to mental health care is needed, whether first-person games like ‘Call of Duty’ create obsessive fantasies or not. Those are social and political questions; they have entered our national debate, as well they should.

Rather, I am here to talk about theology.

Theology is more than a story about God; rather, it is an explanation of our expectations. Should these things happen or not?

Theology defines what is possible in your life: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

A world where these things happen, or a world in which we have the obligation to see to it that they do not.

What we do not need at this juncture is bad theology.

We do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild. We do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. We do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook.

Rather, if we respond by making it a world where these things do not happen, then we might be able to say: what he had intended for evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

Getting Lucky

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment


Abraham wishes to find a wife for his son Isaac, and sends his servant to find one among his kinsmen. Approaching the well near where Abraham’s kinsmen dwell, the servant stops and says a prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”[1]

It is a rather odd prayer: He is asking to be lucky.

As the Medieval commentator Abravanel comments: “If the servant relied on Divine Providence and for that reason prayed to [God], how could he invoke the workings of chance and ask [God] to engineer a coincidence when these are two mutually exclusive categories? What happens through the workings of Providence cannot be termed chance or coincidence.”[2]

“Moreover,” our more contemporary commentator and teacher Nehama Leibowitz adds, “is it conceivable for one who believed in Divine Providence to accept the existence of such a thing as ‘chance’ and even go so far as to request that the Almighty…to prepare such a situation?”[3]

Either God is in charge of all of these small details, arranges things to happen the way they do, and therefore it is no coincidence, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck – or – God is not in charge of these details, and does not make such things happen, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck.

There’s a third option, one that Leibowitz proposes: “Abraham’s servant entreated the Almighty as the Prime Mover behind all things to arrange that matters should work out in accordance with his desires.”[4]

In other words, there is luck – God is not a micromanager – but ultimately it was God who created the situation in the first place.

I think that these points would be clearer if we use the metaphor of a casino:

Option 1 is that the game is rigged, and you are asking the casino owner to load the dice in your favor. Except then it is no longer a game of chance. This is what’s called a deterministic universe, in that the outcome is determined in advance. The notion of divine Providence requires at least some amount of determinism in order to work.

Option 2 is that the game is not rigged, and the casino owner is not able to intervene. You get what you get. In that case, it’s not particularly useful to ask the owner to load the dice for you.  This is what we mean when we speak of free will: you pay your money and take your chances. And you get what you get. Free will requires that the outcome is not determined in advance. In order for it to be a real choice, either outcome must be possible. And therefore not already determined.

Option 3 is that the game is not usually rigged, but under special circumstances it’s possible to load the dice, if you should ask the casino owner nicely.  This is what we mean when we use the phrase “Special Providence.” Most of the time the rules are in place, but God can intervene as needed.

I use the imagery of a casino for a reason: Most of us would prefer that we had the power to rig the game. Or rather, that we had the power to convince the casino owner to rig the game in our favor.

Yet, at the heart of it, the rigged game is not just or fair, is it?

Can justice flourish if the game is rigged so that the good always win?

And would you want to participate in a system where what is good is defined exclusively by what the casino owner likes? Let us hope that it is a benevolent casino owner. Most of us would prefer that there was some benchmark, some absolute by which goodness could be measured, rather than having to bend to the caprice of another.

Okay, so let’s agree that God is infinitely good, unlike our hypothetical casino owner, and God is also just, and fair – and let’s say that the notion of God’s goodness is used as the benchmark. Would it work to have the game that is rigged in favor of those who were good, as God is good in an absolute sense?

But now you have another problem: are the ones who are being good really actually being good – or are they merely being prudent?

For example, imagine a cashier at that casino with a cashbox that will be audited at the end of the shift. If the cashier gives you correct change and does not cheat you, is the cashier doing what is right because it is indeed right, or is the cashier merely doing what is necessary to keep out of trouble?

If you know that the cashbox will be audited, and that there are indeed consequences when it is not kept accurate, then it is simply foolish to give incorrect change, except by unconscious mistake.

Interestingly, my friend the Christian fundamentalist believes that people will only do what is right if they know that their behavior is being judged. The cashier with the cashbox, in his opinion, gives correct change only if it is well-known and well-established hat the cashbox will be audited.

I tend to disagree with him about that, but I am also an optimist by nature.

But let’s return to our example: For the game to be fair, it can’t be rigged – right? You pay your money, you take your chances, and you get what you get.

So let’s look again at the servant and his prayer: why would he be asking the casino owner to bring him luck, if the game is not rigged? As if the casino owner could help! And if the casino owner can help, then why ask for luck? You ask instead for a good outcome. The casino owner has no power over ‘luck’. Luck is not helpful here.

This paradox is precisely why some commentators (including me) prefer to read the servant’s statement as a test rather than a prayer: He is calling out to God to be a witness, not a guarantor.

The servant’s camel request is actually somewhat annoying and difficult to accomplish. The young woman is to bring water for him and for all ten of his camels as well. That’s a lot of water – a lot more than what can be carried on her shoulder. The laws of hospitality require that she give a drink to a stranger – so the first part of his test is one of basic civility – but as for watering his camels, well, he’s on his own.

So he’s seeking out a woman who will go out of her way help more than is required of her – and who is strong enough to do it. He has, after all, ten camels with him, and every one of them can drink several troughs full.

To give some Biblical background: In the Biblical stories, the extent of a person’s hospitality is considered a reliable indicator of a person’s character. For example, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah are considered wicked because they wish to inflict harm on strangers in their city. Abraham is considered righteous because he immediately extends hospitality to the three strangers that appear at his encampment – he runs to serve them. And the refrain ‘be good to the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’ appears repeatedly in the Exodus narratives.

So the servant is looking for a righteous woman, and a strong one, and (interestingly enough) one who will talk to strangers. And he indeed finds her in the person of Rebecca.

Though the Bible does not say that his request (or prayer, or test) was fulfilled by God, the narrative gives us that sense: no sooner than he had finished speaking did she appear. And not only does she fulfill the requirements by offering to give him water and to water his camels as well, but it says repeatedly that she hurried to do so. And she does so with such graciousness and charm that she must have seemed heaven-sent.

Still, we need to be careful here. If we accept that this woman is sent out by God in fulfillment of the servant’s prayer, then we also have to accept those times when she does not appear, when the prayer does not work, when things don’t work out right.

This date is also the date of Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazis’ reign of terror against the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Do we blame God for that one too?

Let’s then go back to our casino example: if the game is fair, then it is not rigged. We don’t automatically win. That only happens when we are small children and our parents indulge us.

Good does not always win – but it should. It is a moral imperative that we make that happen, that we engage with the universe and see to it that it is fair and just. The game is not rigged – but somehow the outcome matters, and it matters greatly. Which is, of course, where the casino metaphor breaks down.

Because, of course, we are not merely throwing dice. The outcome matters greatly.

So let’s look for a moment at a different kind of prayer, at the Misheberach, the prayer for healing. The phrase ‘misheberach’ means ‘the One who blesses’ – may the One who blesses, who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca Rachel and Leah, heal this person.

Is this prayer some kind of foolishness? Certainly not. But are we not asking for something that cannot happen? Are we not asking for God to intervene to create a favorable outcome.

Not exactly. When we try to get God to do our will, that is called theurgy. Theurgy is a fancy word for magic. We are trying to cast a spell that will cause the Godhead to do our bidding. The Misheberach prayer is not theurgy; it is not magic.

Nor are we invoking it to say that we think that this illness is some kind of test, in the sense of ‘if we pass this test, then we will be righteous.’

Rather, it is a statement of outcomes. It is the expression of a wish to be whole again, to be healed, the acknowledgement of our fear in the face of disease, our desire to hold on to what we love, our interest in rising above our mere flesh to have a life of meaning.

It is a request that all of the spiritual energy that is available to us – and it is considerable – be focused on the goal of healing, this one person, right now.

The servant was not praying for luck: he was praying for the ability to discern the results of his test. And we are not praying for luck: we are praying for the ability to respond in the best possible way to the challenges we face.

And that is a very real prayer, and a very powerful one.

[1] JPS translation

[2] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

[3] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. I removed the word ‘Himself’ in order to make the phrase gender-neutral.

[4] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling


January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have not always been able to pray.

As a young adult, I had deep problems with the concept of God and the concept of prayer. I would call myself an atheist because I simply could not conceive of a God worthy of genuine prayer. Even when I found my way to Judaism, I was still not immediately able to pray.

What changed my life, however – what put me on this path first as a Jewish seeker and ultimately as a rabbi – was a book of Jewish theology.  One evening, in a discussion at the Temple, I was explaining my views on God and advocating a very rationalist point of view. In response, my rabbi observed that I agreed with Maimonides. So, during a business trip, I saw a book about Maimonides, written by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I picked it up to read on the airplane.

I really liked the book; so, when I saw another one of Heschel’s books, I bought that one too. I believe that the second book I picked up was God in Search of Man – but I am not entirely certain, for I devoured several of his theological works in rapid succession. It could have been Man’s Quest for God or Man is Not Alone.

What I found so persuasive was the idea that the path to God is through wonder. Heschel points to our sense of awe at the everyday, such as the sight of scarlet and orange leaves during in the fall, or the sound of a small child’s giggle, or the delicate taste of a fresh peach. And he describes our feeling of radical amazement, such as those moments when we stand before the ocean or see the valleys stretch out below us from the mountaintop. These are the first steps toward appreciation of the divine, because they point to a realm beyond our understanding, a realm in which we feel a kinship with the world around us.

The purpose of prayer is to become aware of these moments, those moments in which we are no longer locked within the confines of our own needs and desires but rather united with the whole of life. In prayer, we are attempting to rise above ourselves, to transcend what we are capable of doing alone, to seek that which is more meaningful than our passing existence. Prayer also allows us to voice that feeling of sheer gratitude we feel just to be alive.

Of course, sometimes we feel more grateful than at other times. One year, I was invited to speak at a Jewish day school about prayer. At that time I was recovering from ankle surgery and – thinking that the kids might be curious about my bright purple cast – I decided to speak about the prayer asher yatzar, the prayer thanking God for our ability to stand before God and pray. As the prayer explains, if one of our tiny openings were to shut  — or one of our closed places were to open — we would not be able to stand.

As I explained to the assembled students, I find that I now understand more precisely what that prayer means, being as a small set of ligaments maybe a centimeter long were able to sweep me off of my feet. After that ordeal, I now have a much greater appreciation for the ability to walk on uneven ground without falling – and I am still afraid of high heels.

But, as the prayer reminds us, we tend to take our health for granted – at least until something slows us down and causes us to reflect on how vulnerable we really are.

The cycle of the High Holiday services is when we pause to reflect on that vulnerability: as the liturgy intones, this is the time of judgment, when our deeds are weighed in the balance and our fate is determined for the coming year: who shall live and who shall perish, who shall see ripe old age and who shall be cut down in the prime of their youth.

I cannot read the lines in the unetaneh tokef prayer without a shiver of fear: perhaps, I wonder, it might be possible to cut some sort of deal with God that will allow me to live forever – or at least until I see my great grandchildren?  “Dear God, I promise I will only do good deeds from here on out.” Though I must admit a more accurate prayer would be: “I promise I will only do what seems like a good idea at the time.”

The liturgy of that season also urges us to reaffirm the sovereignty of God. But what exactly are we trying to accomplish with this kind of prayer? To make some kind of theological statement seems to be simple enough: “God – if you are there and can hear me – know that I accept that you are God and there is none else.”

But is that really enough?

Affirming the sovereignty of God means something more than saying, “Hear, O Israel, the God-concept about whom you are deeply, deeply ambivalent, that God-concept is one.” Affirming the sovereignty of God means something more than saying, “Dear Adonai, I have no other God-concept but You.”

Affirming the sovereignty of God means accepting that your life is not your own possession, but rather a loan. We have ownership this life temporarily, but we will have to return it with interest. As with all loans, there is something demanded of us.

In the days leading up to my ankle surgery I fretted a lot; I was worried about it. My husband mused on the fact that I believe that God created the whole world and everything in it, and yet it would appear that I am deeply concerned that God is not sufficiently involved in the details. I giggled at the thought of such a contradiction and then said, yes exactly; evidently there is some chaos built into the system. The outcome is, at least at some level, wholly unpredictable. Who knows whether the surgery will go well or not?

I do get the sense, however, that built into the structure of the cosmos is a kind of delight in our endless surprise, our ability to create whole new possibilities out of the materials we have been given. Otherwise, I would think that being all-knowing would get to be rather dull after a while, sort of like playing tic-tac-toe against yourself.

But then again, who can say whether God has emotions?

If God does have emotions, then also there would also be surprises that would be much less welcome to God.

What happens when we choose badly? In judgment, before whom do we stand?

We know that there is something demanded of us; we are to be just, to act uprightly. We are commanded: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. If you see your enemy struggling to keep a load from falling, help him. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. Keep honest weights and measures. Do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, the widow – or anyone else who is vulnerable, for that matter.

It would seem to me then that the act of affirming the sovereignty of God means affirming that there is justice demanded of us, even in the face of a chaotic world. The fact that we cannot be certain in advance of the outcome of a surgery does not mean that there is no God, or that God has no concern for us, or that God is not all-powerful—or that we are free to behave as we please, consequences be damned.

There are indeed consequences. Do not ask me to explain them to you, however, in some kind of neat phrase which sums up why bad things happen to good people. Chaos is built into the system and sometimes truly hideous things happen to perfectly good people. And, as far as I am concerned, any theology that can confidently explain why children should get cancer is a monstrosity. Affirming that there is moral coherence in the world is not the same thing as affirming that all of the loose ends will tie up neatly.

What I am trying to say is this: I can pray intently for healing, but I cannot make a deal with the Divinity to live to see my great-grandchildren, nor can I make an arrangement on behalf of my own children that they should see no harm. The fact of the matter is, our material world is just so much more changeable than that. The chaos in the system makes it impossible to predict the outcome, particularly from our vantage point, and sometimes things go horribly wrong. But even so, the actions we take matter in ways that are fundamentally important because they directly affect the quality of the world around us.

In fact, it is Heschel who argues that each of our actions has the potential to disclose the holy, to transform the world in small steps. In Heschel’s view, even the smallest religious rituals matter to God; it is in these kinds of small acts that we invoke the Divine and bring God into our lives. In that sense, God is in need of humanity so as to put this process into motion, to allow this transformation to happen. Prayer is profoundly important precisely because we are God’s much-needed partners in the redemption of the world.

What was so profoundly moving for me in reading Heschel all those years ago was the exposure to a deeply religious person who was also spiritually honest. In the place of neat answers and tidy constructs, Heschel asked searching questions and demanded honest answers. In the context of his prose, I encountered a genuinely pious Jew who could pray, really pray, even in the wake of tragedy, even in the wake of great pain, even as a refugee who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. And so I imitated him, as best I could, in little steps.

I did not start out knowing how to pray. At that time I did not yet know Hebrew or the mechanics of prayer. I was still deeply alienated from God. But the attempt to imitate Heschel, to imitate his life and his way of prayer, was what lead me to this life, where I am now, a rabbi and a profoundly committed Jew.

And, in that sense, prayer has changed my life, in the most radical way.

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