Cantor Tamara Wolfson – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779
Since we are fast-approaching Yom Kippur, I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I get jealous of my Christian and Orthodox Jewish friends.
Specifically, I sometimes envy the language they use to describe their faith, and the way that they speak so openly about God.
I scroll through my Facebook and see posts that read something like this:
“Thank you all so much for helping me celebrate my acceptance to medical school! I am so excited for the chance to walk in God’s ways and do this sacred work. I am in awe of my overwhelming blessings and give all the Glory to God for paving the way for me to live this beautiful life.”
“Baruch Hashem, Thank God, I am 34 years old today. I am so blessed that if I tried to say thank you to my Creator for everything — person by person, miracle by miracle — I would be here much longer than another 34 years. I am in awe and so grateful.”
“Please lift me up in prayer today as I go in for shoulder surgery. Feeling a little nervous, but also grateful and blessed that God has provided for my healing.”
These posts bring up a number of questions for me. I wonder whether these friends struggle with their faith the same way that I do. Do they ever question whether God exists, let alone whether God listens to their prayers? Do they ever find themselves flipping through their prayer books out of routine, but struggle to find meaning in the words? I wonder whether these faith testimonials are genuine, or whether they’re manufactured in the way that so many social media posts are these days. And if they are genuine, how have my friends arrived at that place of Facebook-worthy faith?
When I analyse these and similar posts a bit more, I can identify some common threads that link them:
1. expressions of gratitude and/or awe
2. engagement with one’s faith community, and
3. public proclamations of faith.
We progressive Jews are generally pretty comfortable expressing our gratitude and awe, both inside and outside of synagogue. And we lean on and engage with our communities during so many pivotal moments in our lives, from baby blessings to bereavements and everything in between. It’s that third piece of the puzzle, I think, that stops me in my tracks. As a community, we are acutely aware of the very real problems of anti-Semitism and discrimination that we’ve faced, throughout history and even now, that preclude us from public displays of faith. But even without that ever-present fear looming over me, am I really prepared to make a public proclamation of my faith in God on Facebook? What would this look like for me, and what would this mean to me?
To some, my career itself is a public proclamation of faith. Many people assume that because I chose a life in the cantorate, I must have an incredibly strong faith in and relationship with God. To be frank, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I haven’t always believed in God, and my relationship with God has not been easy or straightforward. I feel no shame in admitting this, nor do I think this makes me a better or a worse Jew.
When I was younger, I used to think that my Rabbi and my Cantor had all the answers, and that they and God must have been the best of friends. I looked up at them on the bimah each Shabbat morning in awe of their wisdom, and convinced myself that I needed to aspire to that level of faith to be a “good Jew”. One day, I walked into my Rabbi’s office and asked him what it felt like to have all the answers. He sat me down and assured me that he didn’t have all the answers, but he did have all the questions. Judaism, he told me, was a religion of questions rather than answers. He became a rabbi not so that he could finally know all the answers, but so that he could spend his life asking questions.
Judaism offers us an entire spectrum of possibilities for how we do or don’t express our faith, and all these possibilities are rooted in our tradition.
Moses is often referred to as Moshe Rabeinu: Moses, our Rav, our teacher. Our tradition elevates Moses as a role model because of his strong leadership of the people Israel, and because of his relationship with God. But we can also look to Moses for an example of one of the most well-known rebellions in the Torah: in Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, God tells Moses to speak to a rock and draw water from it. But instead, Moses strikes the rock. While water does eventually issue from the rock, Moses is punished for his misdeed and is forbidden from entering the Promised Land. Moses striking the rock is both a display of frustration as well as a momentary lapse of faith: had he put his full faith in God in that moment, perhaps he would not have lashed out in the way he did. But Moses, like us, is only human. And even from his place of heightened closeness with God, his relationship with God isn’t straightforward either.
So, too, with the people Israel: a people liberated from slavery through a multitude of miracles and guided from slavery to freedom by God and Moses. Wouldn’t you expect, then, that their faith would be steadfast after all they’ve experienced? We know, however, that was not the case. There are at least ten examples throughout the Israelites’ wanderings where they complain bitterly about their circumstances, the pinnacle of which occurs at the beginning of Chapter 32 of the book of Exodus. The Israelites grow impatient with Moses on the mountain, and they construct the infamous golden calf to worship. Their collective crisis of faith serves to remind us that even in the face of countless blessings, we can still find ourselves struggling — so much so, in fact, that we turn away from our faith altogether.
Each year during the High Holy Days, we find ourselves confronting our relationships with God and with Judaism in a different way from the rest of the calendar year. The stakes feel higher during this time, when our liturgy is filled with images of existential importance. We pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life, and we are reminded that our lives are like grass that withers, like flowers that fade. And we are told that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah — through repentance, prayer, and righteousness — we can achieve redemption in the eyes of God. But the trifecta of teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah look and feel different to each one of us, and there is no “one size fits all” approach for these High Holy Days. It is our challenge to read between the lines of our machzorim and find our own language to describe our lives, our relationships, and our Judaism.
I’m not here today to state unequivocally that there is a right or a wrong way to express your religion or spirituality. What matters is what brings you meaning, and it’s not up to me or anybody else to dictate what that looks like. Part of my job as your cantor is to help you find moments of individual and communal connection to whatever you define as Divine.
I am here today to think out loud with you about what it might look and feel like for us to speak more openly about our faith: our low and our high points, and everything in between. Not necessarily on Facebook, but maybe with one another. Not necessarily evangelically, but maybe brutally honestly. This year, as we beat our chests for the ways we’ve missed the mark in 5778 and resolve to do differently in 5779, perhaps we can try out speaking these new sentences about our faith within our community. They don’t have to be Facebook-worthy, and they don’t have to be fully-formed. All that matters is that they are uniquely yours.
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