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What Has God Done for You Lately? #678

05/21/2021 06:06:00 PM

May21

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Naso
What Has God Done for You Lately?

In a previous life, I worked as a communications consultant, which required me to travel weekly to and from a small community, north of the city where we lived.

I quickly achieved ranking as a frequent flyer, and one of the fringe benefits of that status was to receive a light meal during the one-hour flight to and from home.

This usually consisted of a dry smoked turkey sandwich, a sealed cup of semi-frozen orange juice and a candy.

On one flight, I found myself seated next to a man from India.

He looked at my kosher snack and the Hebrew blessings printed on an accompanying card and asked the obvious: “Are you Jewish?”

I answered that I was, and this initiated what is perhaps a frequent flyer’s worst nightmare — a lengthy conversation with a stranger about religion on a small airplane where there are few safe escape options.

At one point, the man posed a question to me: “Being Jewish, please tell me, what has your God done for you lately?”

He continued, “When I pray to God, God lifts me to the tops of mountains. I feel I am floating in the upper levels of the universe. God lifts my soul to the highest of heights. You should try it.”

He then repeated the question: “What has your God done for you lately?”

I paused for a moment, and while placing my juice cup, candy wrapper and cellophane wrapping back in the container, I replied.

“I’m not sure my God is supposed to do anything for me. In fact, it may be the opposite. Our religion teaches that we want God to live among us. And we do so by focusing our attention right here on earth.”

In the ensuing silence, I sought to bring our conversation to a peaceful conclusion by quoting Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), who would say, “Isn’t it wonderful how we have so many religions on this earth — each searching for God in different ways.”

And with that, thankfully, we dozed off for the remaining 20 minutes of the flight.

From time to time, I find myself thinking about that conversation and reflecting upon the question, “What has God done for me lately?” Perhaps, more to the point, I wonder if my attention as a Jew should be focused on heaven or on earth.

There is an important concept within Jewish tradition: Rather than aspire to earn a heavenly afterlife, we focus on bringing God to dwell with us right here on earth.

Notes the Torah, “let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

And within this quote, the Torah teaches — that it is our responsibility to create an earthly world of kindness, compassion, respect and empathy — a place where God would want to dwell.

When we place a call to someone who is ill, alone or isolated — we bring God to earth.

When a synagogue makes it possible for everyone to feel welcome — regardless of their perspective or background — we bring God to earth.

When we achieve the sweet balance between family, livelihood and the world around us — we bring God to earth.

That principle perhaps explains why this week’s Torah portion — Naso — is the longest.

The Torah describes a sacred space a “tent of meeting for God to dwell” known as the Mishkan. As one of my rabbinical teachers once commented: It was not a towering sanctuary, but rather a simple RV that would accompany the Israelites.

And that sacred space was contained — as the Book of Exodus describes — within 48 planks of wood, which according to legend, were planted by our patriarch, Jacob, hundreds of years earlier.

In painstaking detail, the Torah this week describes the physical contributions of each tribe of Israel.

The tribes merged their physical contributions with their unique spiritual longings. In modern terms, we call this combining thoughts and prayers with action.

It is a difficult balance to achieve.

Each of us possesses a plank of wood — a unique skill — within a God-given body and soul. This is accompanied by an innate quest for meaning.

Our faith sometimes becomes shaky like our souls. For often, we have doubts. At other times, our faith is as solid as wood. It is why perhaps this week’s Torah portion is both long and meaningful.

Through the array of contributions described by so many tribes we are inspired to consider, “What is your unique plank?” 

What is the unique skill or perspective that each of us brings to the world? And how are we using that skill to assist God in tikun olam, the repair of the world.

Who among us does not grapple with faith? We are constantly struggling, questioning, wondering where God is — or isn’t.

Indeed, as the Torah tells us, God is not found in heaven — but rather on earth, and we work in partnership with God to create a better universe that is in such dire need of repair.

Friends, we are living more and more in a “me first” world. Many of us are obsessed with preserving our personal rights. Self-entitlement has become its own religion.

While Judaism embraces personal freedom, it places a stronger focus on family, community, country and world.

The Torah teaches that God is not found “in the heavens… or on the other side of the sea.” Rather, it reminds us “that the thing is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

The true question is not, “What has God done for me lately?” but rather “what have we done to bring God closer to us?”

The Torah reminds us that God is not located on the top of some distant mountain. Rather, God exists within our midst, within our actions, and even our struggles.

Indeed, through love, care, kindness and understanding, God can live among us — right here on earth.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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