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sermon: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

Leaving Doubt at the Door

While challenging, doubt is a cherished idea in Judaism.

The High Holy Days are like a moving train. Throughout the month of Elul we prepare. We check the schedule and make sure that we have everything in place. On Erev Rosh HaShanah we arrive at the station and hop on this 10 day long trip. We travel through the highs and the lows of our lives. We are given the opportunity to reflect and ask for forgiveness. We reconnect with old friends and deepen our understanding of our fellow PTS community members through story and personal sharing. We take time to remember the people who used to sit next to us, who are no longer here. The music piped into the train-car is somewhat familiar and intended to stir our emotions and connect to our hearts. We can all picture what this train sounds like and looks like.

You know what else we bring on this train? BAGGAGE. A year and a lifetime of experiences that cause us to hold back from who we want to be. The baggage that forces us into a theology which might not work for us anymore. It weighs us down so much that we can no longer imagine what life would be like without it. Even so, the challenge of the High Holy Days is seeing how we have changed when the ride is over. Which words, written or spoken, have touched us? Have we allowed them to penetrate our minds and hearts so that we can make better choices next time? This is the struggle. Packed alongside the prayerbook, the shofar, and the round challah is a healthy dose of doubt and uncertainty that what we are doing has any effect at all.

Tonight, as we begin this journey, I want to bring doubt and the uncertainty about God and prayer into the room. Even though God and prayer they are two different issues, they are highly connected. Our tradition teaches that we reach God through prayer. But if we are on the fence about our belief in God what does it mean that we are saying the prayers? These issues go hand in hand. Let’s talk tonight about what to do with this doubt, how we can embrace rather than fight it in our spiritual practice during the High Holy Days and beyond.

There is a story about a woman searching for the answer to whether God hears our prayers. She asks, “Rabbi, what if there isn’t a God? Won’t we have wasted much of our time and energy in trying to do God’s will?” Silently, and without hesitation, the rabbi led her student outside where, together, they waited for nightfall. When it was completely dark, the rabbi handed her student a bow and arrow, and pointed toward the woods. “There is a target painted on a tree in that forest. Shoot an arrow and try to hit the bullseye.” The student strung the bow, then paused and said, “But rabbi, it’s dark, and we cannot see the target.” “You’re right,” said the rabbi, “you don’t know where it is, or even if it is.” The student shot the arrow as well as she could into the forest. The rabbi said to her student, “You have shot an arrow, not knowing whether it has hit its mark, not knowing even if there is a mark. Yet you felt the strength of the bow, and the tightening of your muscles. When believing in God, it is not the target that matters … but rather how well the arrow flies … and how it has affected the archer.”

I wonder how many people in this sanctuary have doubts about the existence of God. I wonder how many people consider themselves spiritual and not religious because the idea of God they have in their minds does not match with what they were taught as children in Sunday school. Or how our High Holy Day machzor portrays God as Judge and Arbiter. I know I have had these thoughts throughout my life. It turns out that this is one thing on which a large number Jewish people can agree. According to a Pew Research study, 47% of American Reform Jews, 46% of American Conservative Jews and 19% of Orthodox Jews harbor some degree of divine doubt (1). This statistic offers us a view of the Jewish community that is willing to admit to the struggle. That they are dedicated to community despite personal uncertainty. All of this is to say if you are in doubt then you are in good company.

So why do we have such a hard time with this? For one, we can’t see or feel God’s presence in a consistent way. Our Torah is full of examples of people talking to God, knowing God, and seeing God. We are not as lucky as Abraham, Jacob, and Moses who experienced a regular and immediate back and forth with God. And yet, these are our most vivid examples. Later on in the Torah, we are introduced to animal sacrifice as a way of communicating with God. This communication vehicle ended with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE. In a post-destruction world, the rabbis innovated our communication into prayer. We use our words to connect to God. We organize our days around words of thanks and praise, penitence and remembrance. We are now three steps removed from the original idea of speaking face-to-face with God and in that time doubt has filled the void.

While challenging, doubt is a cherished idea in Judaism. Doubt leads to questions and searching. We do not take things at face value. This is evident by the fact that we read the Torah with commentary, discussing it, and struggling with it. Doubt is not an ending point, just another point along the way. There is no creed in Judaism that says we think x,y, and z about God. And if you don’t think x,y, and z about God then you are not considered Jewish. The Shema is a focusing prayer about the oneness of God but it does not require faith in that God. It is a communal prayer, rather than a personal one by invoking the entire community of Israel. Doubting is ok as long as it is a continued conversation and not an end point.

However, the story about the arrows in the dark is more than just doubt in God’s existence, it is also the recognition of yearning for God’s presence. Doubt and yearning are two points on the spectrum of feeling disconnected. One defines the disconnection by saying that God doesn’t exist and the other is still wanting to connect but having difficulty doing so. This is our struggle and it is magnified during the High Holy Days because we are given the time to contemplate our doubts and our yearnings.
Yearning is not the same thing as wanting physical things. It is addressing the place inside of us that wants something better. It is the wanting to be satisfied with what we have and who we are with. It is finding meaning in our work. It is hoping to be good people in the new year. Yearning is the verb, it is the process rather than the outcome.

Opening our hearts and expressing our yearning takes courage. While we may be yearning in in the spiritual sense, we might also be clinging extra hard to what seems rational and logical. But rational and logical, prayer is not. Rabbi Jay Michaelson writes, “Ironically, the very act of admission of surrendering… and admitting that yes, I want to pray; I want to yearn; I want to ask that all-powerful Mother or Father figure for what I need most – this very act is the gateway to authentic prayer itself.”(2) On some level, we all yearn for the Unknowable. If we could find the answers to our deepest questions and fix the ills of the world we would do it right away, but it seems that we cannot do this alone. We need a Resting Place, a Rock, a Guardian, and Protector. When we allow ourselves the space to wonder, hope, and recognize our gifts – that is when we find prayer.

In the book, Making Prayer Real, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who will be a scholar in residence at PTS later this year, shares an example from his own life about yearning. He says, “I realize that in moments of crisis in my life, I’ve never expected prayer to be the problem. When I thought that I was going to lose my wife and my twins in a really chilling moment of her pregnancy, I prayed a lot. I cried, I pounded the wall, I was taking to God out loud. Two of the nurses walked by and one of them said, “I’m not worried about the mom, but I’m worried about the dad.’ And I turned to her said, ‘I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now.’ In that moment of praying, I wasn’t alone. I felt absolutely that the Divine was with me. I had no expectations of changing the outcome. That was medical, what the doctors do; that was biological. I didn’t expect a suspension of the rules. I just expected not to be left alone. And that’s what I turn to prayer for. It’s enough.”(3) We have all been in that place of discouragement and despair in one way or another. Rabbi Artson knew that he could not change the realities of that hospital room, but he could express his yearning that through the tough moments, God would be there with him. Rabbi Sheryl Lewart captures this idea so beautifully by saying, “Prayer changes and affects the person who prays because prayer opens the heart.” (4)

As we embark on this journey through the 10 days of awe, let’s try to lighten our load of doubt about what we are doing here. Live in the uncertainty for a little while, it might feel uncomfortable. This sanctuary is big enough, it can handle our deepest thoughts, concerns, and worries. Let us tap into our yearnings and use this time to vocalize it for ourselves and share it with God. Allow the liturgy to guide you with poetry and metaphor to a place where you can express the gratitude and the magnitude for the lives we are living right now. This year, let’s try to set aside our doubts and instead recognize our yearnings through prayer.
Pray for yourself, pray for others, pray for this world. Use this time wisely, before we know it the trip will be over. This is my prayer for 5779.

Shana Tova.

1- http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
2- Ibid.
3- Making Prayer Real, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, pg. 129
4- Making Prayer Real, Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, pg. 41