May 16, 2019


5.17.2019 Weekly Torah Portion

Parashat Emor

This week during Torah study Rabbi Mark asked us, “What do you do when God speaks to you? Do you listen?” Answers from the residents varied but it became clear that knowing what is “God’s voice” is elusive at best.

The question is a powerful one: what would you do if one day God, in fact, decided to speak to you? Do you share it? If so, then with whom? Your Doctor? Your Psychiatrist? Your family? Your Partner? Would you tell your rabbi?

Many of us would think that we are insane. Hearing a foreign voice in our head goes against what we believe is “good mental health.” And yet we discuss God’s words and all of his teachings and interventions in the world as if it was a matter of fact. Many of us believe that Moses saw the burning bush and that the people of Israel heard and saw God’s presence at Mount Sinai. We are not surprised when we read the instances when God speaks to Moses and instructs him to educate the people of Israel. But I have doubts… Rabbi Mark and I have a fundamental theological disagreement regarding this. Does God speak to us? And does he care? (Side note: If you didn’t come to our two-part Adult Education Series, “Rabbinical Showdown,” you missed some fun…) While Rabbi Mark believes with all of his heart and soul that God indeed cares and speaks to him, I do not. I have often shocked those who have heard me say, “God does not give a sh**t!”

For me, God has vacated his presence from our world and left us with residue and crumbs of a structure he once built for us.

For some, this might read as blasphemous and unbecoming of a rabbi. While I won’t bore you with a long dissertation of my theology, I believe that in the absence of God in our world, we are left to our own devices. The true essence of God is our own existence; the only thing that drives me is my responsibility to other people in the world. I can only see myself through and with other people. Our HUMAN condition is what binds us together. This is a sobering, lonely and deeply connected theology that I experience as Jewish existentialism. God does not care, so I must!
In the same Torah study, Rabbi Mark mentioned Rabbi Soloveitchik and his understanding of the moment of revelation and redemption, “when a humble man makes a movement of recoil, and lets himself be confronted and defeated by a Higher and Truer Being,” as he writes in Lonely Man of Faith, which rings true to me.

For me God is a higher and truer being only exposed through living, existing, connecting and engaging with one another as humans. He is not some father figure up above that cares for his creation. When we understand that and ourselves fully, we surrender to this truth and the importance of our own actions and our own “Godly” sovereignty.

As we approach Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah, we climb up a spiritual ladder known as the Omer. The commandment to count the Omer is mentioned in this week’s Parsha. This mitzvah asks us to count forty-nine days beginning from the day after Passover, commemorating the forty-nine sacrifices we made in the ancient temple that lead us to Shavuot – the moment of revelation. Today we set aside time to count each day and have it represent our spiritual preparation. It is a daily action that forces us to ask ourselves how we are preparing to face truth. How do we listen to our spirit and get ready for the moment of revelation?

The Omer, which translates as “sheaf,” is an old Biblical measure of the volume of grain – a sustenance, a food that is a physical necessity. During ancient times on the 50th day of the Omer count, which corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot, two loaves made of wheat were offered in the Temple to signal the start of the wheat harvest.

Today this counting represents more of a lofty goal. It is a time for potential inner spiritual growth – we must work on our characteristics and defects. Known in Hebrew as our middot, which also translates to “measurement,” through reflection – finding the right measure of each of our traits, actions, and commitment – we examine aspects of ourselves and learn how to look inwards and commit to examine how we act in the world.

Both aspects of the Omer are true. Both are necessities of sustenance and both, physical and spiritual, lead up to the moment of revelation. The Omer is a tool I use to measure myself and find the proper measure of my actions towards myself and my intentions and towards other people.
While I hold strong to my belief that my Torah and my work comes from divine inspiration, it is just that – an inspiration. A sacred space of bodily as well as spiritual sustenance, but of my own choosing. Most importantly, it is my choice to find my motivation in this world for that; to find meaning is what we humans do best.

So, what would happen if God decided to speak to me? I don’t know -I have to leave a little room for magic too… 🙂

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Iggy Gurin Malous