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Belief and Gratitude

Sermon Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

You know the classic joke: the waiter stops at the table at the kosher restaurant and says to the Jewish patrons, “Is anything alright?”

In spite of this being Gratitude Shabbat, there were times in the last few days when it felt exactly like that.

My friends, this has been a heckuva week. We have known for some time that we needed to move from this fine place by December or so, and we have been working on those arrangements since June. But this week began with the church with whom we thought since the High Holy Days that we were going to share space deciding against doing so. We quickly regrouped and arranged another quite acceptable temporary space that we had considered earlier, got rapid approval, and it all was full-speed ahead on Wednesday. And then suddenly that offer was very unexpectedly rescinded on Wednesday night, and by Thursday morning we faced the distinct possibility of being all dressed up with quite literally no place to go—truly being Wandering Jews, as our peripatetic Congregation Beit Simcha has been for a year, only this time the possibilities of finding a Promised Land, even a temporary Promised Landing, were looking quite grim. We would have been Abraham and Sarah, only without any apparent divine guidance to a new homeland.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. I can now announce that we have secured another month here at Oracle and Ina, and that we are moving to the temporary space at La Cholla and Ina after all, and that we actually have two other quite good alternatives to consider for Beit Simcha to move our sanctuary and Youth Education and Adult Education Academy and Social Justice work and meetings and, of course, our Onegs and festivals and burgeoning congregational life. We have made incredible progress in the last 36 hours or so, especially thanks to Ken Goodman, our board member and magician of good relationships with key people in Oro Valley and Tucson. When I thanked Ken, he said, “It wasn’t me—it was the good Lord. I certainly couldn’t have done this alone.” Which is really beautiful, and almost certainly true…

And then, also on a very dark Wednesday night this past week, our accompanist for the past year, Albert Sarko, did not appear at our weekly musical rehearsal, and didn’t respond to texts or calls. Thursday night, after our Board Meeting, Brett Zanger followed me over to Albert’s place and we found out from his neighbor that he had passed away suddenly on Tuesday, from natural causes. The rain that fell all week here in Tucson began to feel more like heavenly tears. His loss is sad and painful. He was a very talented and highly intelligent Jew who gifted us with his music and arrangements and unexpected jazz riffs for the entirety of our first year. There may be a memorial service for him on Tuesday morning; I have been speaking with his mother, who is coming in from Scottsdale to take care of his things. She told me that he was very proud of his work for Beit Simcha, and that he really enjoyed being here and playing here, and I shared that he was particularly helpful with the young musicians who have had the chance to work with him.

In the midst of all these experiences, and before things turned first grim and then more hopeful this week, I’ve been thinking lately about the question of belief in God. This was prompted by a question I received last week from a congregant here at Beit Simcha, Agnes Don, who asked me if I believe in God. I do, unequivocally, and answered as such. Yes, I believe in God.

Agnes was pleased and, I think, relieved, which struck me as kind of funny. Aren’t rabbis supposed to believe in God? What is it about my preaching or teaching or the way I seek to lead my congregation that prompted this question?

In any case, I have always believed in God, without reservation. For as long as I can remember, I just have had this rock-solid belief in God. It is not something rational, nor is it based on anything that I perceive that God did for me at any specific time in my life. I’ve never had a moment of great personal revelation, or any miraculous special sense of God suddenly entering my experience in a direct way. I just always have believed that God exists, that there is more to the world then we generally understand or perceive, that God began the creation of this amazing universe, and that ultimately God cares about us, created as we are in God’s own image.

I also believe that God desires us to seek justice and peace in this world, even if we don’t generally do a very good job on either of those.

I certainly don’t know if there is an afterlife—actually, no one really does, by the way. I don’t know if there is a heaven or hell beyond this. But I certainly believe that each of us has an innate quality, a soul, if you will, that is more than the sum of our organic parts. I believe that our lives are best lived seeking to create holiness in this world, trying to build and establish meaning and purpose in our lives.

This is not to criticize or critique people who don’t share my own deep faith. I know many people who don’t believe in God, including some of you who attend our temple every Shabbat, and I have many friends who are agnostics and some who call themselves atheists. To me, this is also a personal statement of faith and belief, even in its absence.

My own belief in God has seen me through very challenging times and allowed me to survive sailing some very rough seas. I believe it is in large part responsible for resilience, our ability to bounce back from disappointments and failures, and it has been comfort and emotional sustenance to me when dreams crumbled or all seemed lost. And when things go well it is that same belief that allows me to express gratitude to God for the good that I, and those I care about, have received, to rejoice not in my own accomplishments but in having fulfilled a part of the potential that God has given each of us. I am deeply grateful, in this coming season of Thanksgiving, for my own rooted belief, which sustains me personally.

I must note that not all Reform rabbis have that same sense of belief in God—nor do all Jews, of course. But for me belief is a central part of my identity. It is a core piece of who I am.

It seems to me that today there is an increasing dichotomy, a deep divide between people who say they believe in God and those who do not. Often you hear truly harsh things said, and done, against people who believe differently, and the root of that probably goes back to the bad old days of religious wars. I have seen deeply religious people act with great bias and even hatred against those they perceive to lack appropriate levels of belief. I have also seen non-believers act with great bias and even hatred against those they perceive to have too much, or too naïve, a form of belief.

In this area we are dealing with a false dichotomy, a divide that shouldn’t really be there at all. Because belief in God, or its absence, is not a matter of personal choice. It is rooted much more deeply than that. We find faith, or we lose faith, because of something innate in our own natures, because of how we are raised and either accept or react against it, and often because of our experiences in life. Religious belief, or its absence, is not something that others should criticize or critique. It is personal and private, and often profound.

My friends, it is indeed possible for those who don’t believe to come to belief; it happens pretty often. And it is also possible for those who are believers to lose that belief. Neither is a situation requiring criticism nor should it generate hostility.

I don’t expect anyone else to have the same beliefs I do, not even my own children. And I firmly believe that everyone has a right to his or her own understanding of God, including the right not to believe in God.

That’s very Jewish, by the way, and consistent with my religion’s long refusal to require a profession of belief. We Jews are nearly always more interested in conduct than faith, in what we do rather than what we believe or say.

But sometimes it’s worthwhile examining the motivations behind those actions. And for me, at least, it’s based on belief—belief which has been a great gift during a challenging week, belief that helps inspire action, belief that brings comfort and always provides support.

Thanksgiving in Hebrew is Hodayah, gratitude. It has the same root as a word you may know, Todah, thank you, as in Todah Rabbah. Hodu is the word that is often used for praise of thanksgiving to God, which is almost exactly the same word in Hebrew as Hodi, which means “turkey.” So there is no doubt that the right food to eat on a holiday of Thanksgiving must be turkey, right?

A prayer based in my own sense of gratitude:

May you be blessed with those things: the inspiration to act to improve yourself and the world; the gift of support at times of struggle; and the comfort of knowing that you, also, are not alone.

Whatever your own beliefs.

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