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God on the High Seas #755

12/02/2022 02:00:05 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Vayetzei“(God) is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)

God on the High Seas

About 25 years ago, when I was leading Shabbat services in my former congregation with a fellow lay leader, we delighted in a joyous day.

We were celebrating the bat mitzvah of very talented and committed young lady, who not only led the entire service, but also delivered a wonderful speech regarding Tikun Olam—the Jewish national mission to heal this broken world.

There was much joy, lots of singing, a bit of dancing, and even the sharing of some good-natured humor between the prayers and the Torah reading.

At the time, before my decision to attend rabbinical school, our Canadian congregation was “between rabbis.” I served as one of our bar and bat mitzvah teachers, while my friend, Neil, led services by calling page numbers, adding some background, and providing an occasional Internet-inspired sermon.

But on that particular Shabbat morning, we experienced a little theological setback.

As we completed services—with everyone smiling and preparing to enter the ballroom for a nice meal and some tributes—a nun, a guest of the family, stomped on to the bimah, lifted her right wrist, extended her index finger, and began lecturing Neil and me.

“That was the most disrespectful service I have ever witnessed,” she began. “You were laughing and joking, and there was dancing and candy throwing. What a disgrace to God.”

I looked at her and Neil, and made an important decision: We would not debate with her. She was a guest. Rather, I recall saying, “Jewish services and the services you are used to are a bit different in focus, but we are so happy to have you as our guest. Maybe we can talk more later.” But we never did.

It was one of those moments that I’ve reflected upon over the years. Should I have answered her differently? At the time, I was caught off guard. What should I have said?

I reflected upon that Shabbat a few days ago, as I thought about this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayetzei, (And Jacob left…) where we are introduced to the idea of Jacob’s ladder.

As we join Jacob this week, he is on the run. He and his mother, Rebekah, have tricked Isaac into bestowing upon Jacob the family’s birthright, rather than on Esau, the rightful heir.

When Esau realizes what has happened, he becomes furious and vows to kill Jacob, who flees north toward Haran, the family’s ancestral home.

It is a lonely time for Jacob. As he travels through the desert with his heavy load, Jacob finds a flat stone and decides to take a nap—literally between a rock and a hard place. And there he has a remarkable dream: He envisions angels rising to and descending from heaven. When he awakens, Jacob utters a sentence that will resonate within Judaism for millennia. “Surely יהוה (God) is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)

The concept is inspiring: It means that God can be found in even our most desolate places.  God can also be found in our interactions. God is present in our words. God is found within our relationships. God is present wherever we choose to find God.

And perhaps most importantly for us as Jews, God can be found as much outside of a synagogue as within.

It means that in addition to prayer, Jewish religious services can include reflection, spirituality, and some humor—for God created humor. We can also—from time to time—add an inspiring piece of music, a new melody, and even—as is our practice—a well-placed video to enhance our spirituality.

There is a theological premise behind this: It reflects the fact that attending synagogue is not so much about completing a specific religious ritual, but rather about inspiring us to enter the world and become better people.  Above all, we are a people of action, dedicated to becoming constructive and contributing participants within this often imperfect world.

Indeed, the Jewish mission, as expressed in Torah, is not so much to offer sacrifices and fixed prayer, but rather—as the Book of Isaiah reminds us—to, “Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them.” (Isaiah 58:7)

Statistics indicate that, today, more Jews than ever are identifying with certain holidays, rituals and causes that define us as Jews. Support for Israel is as strong as ever. Nevertheless, attendance at religious services continues to wane—particularly among younger generations.

That is not a completely bad thing. It challenges rabbis, cantors, and other religious leaders to create religious services that are engaging, less ritualistic and fixed, and more spiritual and touching to the soul.

There is room within Judaism for joy, laughter, song, and celebration—most importantly because perhaps the greatest Jewish work we engage in occurs outside the synagogue. God is found in the way we conduct ourselves at home, in our relationships and within the behavior we model for our children, grandchildren and others we inspire or encounter. 

Patte and I are currently on a brief cruise. We have been at sea for six days and are about to return. During this time, I have worn my Kippah, and have had a variety of interactions. Almost all of them good.

The composition of this cruise is diverse. Among the 4,278 on board, there are young and old, passengers from the US and abroad—a wide variety of languages are heard. Everyone gets along.  We have felt that this cruise is a tribute to God’s handiwork. And although I did not intend to engage in religious conversations, some have occurred.

I have been approached by some non-Jews with concerns over growing antisemitism in the world. Some have asked me biblical questions. Our table mates have asked why the Wailing Wall is now known as the Western Wall. Everywhere we have gone, rested, danced, read, talked, eaten, and interacted, I have felt that God is in this place, as God is in every place—it’s just that sometimes we don’t notice.

Tonight at 7:30 pm, in the backroom of the Windjammer restaurant, aboard the Odyssey of Seas, we will hold Shabbat services. I will be joined by a dozen Israelis and an equal number of Jews from around the world.

There will also be a few non-Jews, who will attend out of interest. And my brief message this evening will be, “God is in this place, in every place, when we open the door for God to enter—within the deserts of our lives, within our interactions and relationships, in synagogues and other places of worship—even at sea.

God is found every time we celebrate God in our lives, or witness God in others. Indeed, this parashah reminds us, life is a ladder. Our experiences, both pleasant and challenging help us navigate the climb.

Jacob inspires us this week to consider that while we often reach out to God during times of pain, reflection, and isolation, we can also experience God through joy, laughter, and celebration—both individually and communally.

Perhaps that is the answer I should have shared with our guest many years ago. Somewhere on the ocean, as our ship bounces across the waves of dawn, and we enter another day, another Shabbat, another week, I find God in this place.

For as I recall in Jacob’s dream, those angels ascended from the ground to heaven. We are not a “top down” religion, but rather one from the ground up. Will we wait for God to appear from heaven, or will our actions and interactions reach inspire us to reach higher?

How will our interactions be this week? For as Jacob shared with the world in this week’s parashah. God is in this place. God is everywhere.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, November 28 2023 15 Kislev 5784