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God Is Not Santa Claus  #793

09/01/2023 06:03:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Ki Tavo 

"I, God will speed up everything in its time." -- (Isaiah 60:20)    

God is Not Claus

In the early pages, he asks, “What is the most difficult commandment to keep?”

After considering many possibilities, he concludes that the most difficult commandment to follow is, “Thou shalt not make God into a graven image.”

He goes on to discuss humanity’s fixation with picturing God as an old white bearded male, sitting on a throne in the sky, pulling the strings of our lives.

In today’s world, it’s not a particularly inspiring image. Rabbi Kushner, follows up with a statement that is, perhaps, more accurate than we are willing to admit: “God is not Santa Claus.”

Too many perceive God that way. Perhaps many of us at some time have hoped or believed that if we pray and act properly, God will reward. Conversely, if we encounter adversity, we must have done something wrong.

Rabbi Kushner takes the idea a step further. He poses the question: If we identify God as an old white man, what if we are not Caucasian, male or aged?

Have we excluded the majority of inhabitants on this earth? What if we are female, black or brown, young or LGBTQ? How is it that only one demographic group reflects God’s image?

Perhaps it is also why, these days, so many confront rabbis and other religious leaders with the statement, “I don’t believe in God.”

Indeed, if you do not regard God as a judgmental father figure, then you may feel at odds with humanity’s prevalent image of the Creator.

That’s why Rabbi Kushner cautions against depicting God as anything physical.

In many ways, his 2015 words reflect this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which clearly depicts two distinct life journeys.

This week’s parashah preaches that if we follow God’s commandments, we will live a life of blessings. If we disobey, we will experience misery.

The Torah then continues to list a very specific series of blessings and curses that supposedly reflect God’s pleasure or displeasure with our behavior.

This oversimplified approach to life is one reason why I am not fond of this Torah portion, even though I recited it exactly 57 years ago at my bar mitzvah.

For as I have learned over my 70 years, life is not so much how we move between black and white, but rather how we navigate the greys.

Each of our failed relationships, errors in judgement, misspoken words and even bouts of darkness have developed within us spiritual antibodies that have hopefully led us towards light and insight.

Perhaps—as was the case for many of us growing up—threats, punishment and the lure of reward kept us in line.

But this approach has—as Rabbi Kushner notes, rather than facilitate better behavior—likely resulted in a significant number of hours spent on a therapist’s couch.

Our definition of God is important as we enter the final two weeks before Rosh Hashanah—a time of introspection and commitment toward a better and more meaningful life.

Many cringe as we recite the “Who will Live” (U’ntaneh Tokef) prayer. Many perceive an urgency to placate God.

But as is often the case, when we make promises under pressure, these commitments rarely take hold.

Rather, many rabbis encourage us to perform some initial spiritual homework during Elul—the month which precedes the High Holidays.

Less pressure.  No sword over our heads. No divine threats.

For I believe that our destinies are more closely linked to the life choices we make, rather than the rulings of a judgmental father figure.

So, we begin considering—during this month of Elul—the specific changes we can identify that will bring us closer to a life of true meaning.

After many years of cringing in synagogue during the reading of my bar mitzvah Torah portion, a few years ago, I found myself focusing on a passage from the Book of Isaiah that follows this week’s list of blessings and curses.

Isaiah reminds us in the Haftorah that while our daily lives are often challenging, if we follow a decent, ethical path—if we work hard and pursue our goals with integrity—our dreams can come true—and perhaps we can even accelerate the coming of the Messiah.

This week’s reading from Isaiah ends with the words “B’Itah Achishena,” which I like to translate as: “I, God, will speed up everything in its time.”

How many acts—good or bad—have we all committed that were not immediately rewarded or punished?

So at this time of the year, we reflect upon where we are spiritually, and what we can do to make our lives not only sweeter, but also more meaningful.

As we relish in the presence of our children, grandchildren and friends, let us count our blessings, as we appreciate that in spite of the ups and downs we have experienced, our journey on this earth has been a rich and rewarding one.

And it is not over.

This week’s Torah portion preaches that life is about compliance. But I’m not so sure.

I am more inclined to believe, that life is a slow and steady journey as day to day we commit to actions and behaviors which not only enhances our lives, but the lives of others.

And that it is we—rather than a white bearded man in the sky who pulls the strings—and that if we follow a path of "justice, goodness and humility," much of what we wish for will come to pass.

It was with great sadness that I recently learned that Rabbi Kushner passed away this past April. Only now, having passed 70, I am coming to know him better and share his teachings.

Indeed, we acquire new teachers every day.

As Isaiah reminds me each year, on this, the anniversary of my bar mitzvah, everything that is destined to be, shall be. 

For God puts everything into motion—in its time.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784