The Closeness of God

Since we started reading Vayikra, I’ve been waiting for a chance to argue with my friend and teacher, Rabbi Billy Dreskin. We’ve worked together for years, and we often disagree. But we always learn from each other. His recent d’var torah is a perfect example. Billy is absolutely right in saying that many of us are looking for a closer relationship with God, and that there are only two prayers for closeness in the entire Siddur. But he’s also wrong.

This past year, as a result of some difficult times in my life, I’ve started davening two or three mornings a week.  I don’t rush it, but I don’t get lost in modern readings, either. I chant the Hebrew prayers slowly and carefully, allowing them to change me. And within a few minutes, I feel that God is present.

I start with Ma Tovu, and I think of how much goodness my work with my congregation has given me – of all the times when I have walked into my synagogue and found joy and wonder and the chance to make someone else’s life richer. And I realize that the tents of Jacob and the dwelling places of Israel have given meaning to my life.

And I recite the prayer for our bodies – thanking God for making the closed places closed and the open places open, and remembering that without God’s help, I would not even be able to stand. I have never had to deal with severe illness. But there have been narrow places in my life, and tragedies that I’ve had to deal with. I look back on my life, and on my own gifts and talents and the people who’ve helped me, and I realize that it doesn’t add up. I simply could not have gotten this far on my own. At every step of my life, God was helping me to stand.

And I say the blessings for daily miracles, remembering the times when God gave me strength, thanking God for helping me to stand, and for planting a little of his Godliness in each of us, and for one of the most gifts of all: for making me a Jew.

And then comes the piece de ’resistance: the blessing for Torah study, reminding me that Torah has been a beacon of hope and a tower of strength at every moment of my life. And Elu Devarim, which reminds me that there is a life style that brings me infinite rewards – a life style of caring and simple acts of kindness – a lifestyle that I would never have discovered without God’s Torah.

Rabbi Dreskin is right: There are only two prayers in the entire Siddur that ask God to come closer. But now, after years of study, after years of building community, I have discovered that God was close to me all along – in every moment, in every sacred act, in every word of the Siddur.

Perhaps the problem is that we have to dig beneath the surface – to reframe the words of the Siddur in ways that capture our souls and connect to our stories. But perhaps the problem is very different. Perhaps, we’re looking for magic words that will somehow change God – a magic formula that somehow says, “God, I need you close to me. Come over here, now!” If those are the words we’re looking for, we’ll never find them in the Siddur. And when you think about it, changing God is a lot to ask. But we can struggle with the words, and we can work to lead more meaningful Jewish lives, and with effort, we can find meaning in the Siddur. It’s not an easy journey, and no one else can do it for us. But ultimately, we can allow God to change us, and we can realize that God was here all along.

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Art Grand

About Art Grand

Art Grand is immediate past chair of the Commission on Worship, Music, and Religious Living. He is past president of Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale, CA. Art if proud of is wife, who recently completed her PhD, his son who is a PhD candidate and his daughter who is a majoring in political science at UC San Diego.

3 Responses to “The Closeness of God”

  1. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 3, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Even though the use of the word “davening” to refer to the devotional practices of Reform Jews makes my skin crawl, I find myself in agreement with many of Mr. Grand’s insights. There is something almost mystically powerful about the way that disciplined, regular prayer can affect us. At this point it’s almost cliché to say so, but the “keva”, or fixed portions of the liturgy, have a profound centering effect, and can be a vehicle for the expression of individual “kavanah”, or other prayerful intentions. This is true in Hebrew or the vernacular. While I am a huge fan of freely-composed English readings even when they’re not translations or paraphrases of traditional Hebrew prayers, my personal practice is still full of the “fixed” order of prayer. I have found that twice-daily prayer improves the quality of my day-to-day life because it slowly molds me and helps me to live to what God demands.

    I’m not sure exactly what Religious School curricula look like these days, but it seems to me to be important that we attempt to foster in our youth a habit of regular private prayer in addition to weekly communal worship in the synagogue. I was never taught to do that in Religious School or Hebrew School, and I think it would have helped me through some difficult times if I had thought to do it. I generally shy away from the “supernatural” and the “mystical”, but private prayer really seems to invite the Shekhina into the room, and that comforting feeling would be good for young people.

  2. avatar

    Art and I have had a gentle back-and-forth on this. Here’s what I wrote to him:

    While we cannot demand that God come close to us, we CAN demand of ourselves that we move closer to God. Perhaps that is what you’ve found this past year and, in fact, in so many of the years of your life.

    I don’t want God to spend time focusing on me. Not when Joseph Kony is still loose in Africa. Not when global climate change is wreaking havoc. Not when Republicans and Democrats have completely forgotten the art of diplomacy. “For God’s sake, God,” I say, “if You’re going to focus on someone, focus on them. My problems, even if I’m dying, or someone near me is dying, my problems are so small next to the real work You have to do. So, if You can hear me, get to work, will You? And if that’s not the way You work, then please forgive me for not holding up my end of The Deal. You created such a magnificent universe. I’m sorry we haven’t done more to take care of it.”

  3. avatar

    Mr. Friedman’s aversion to the word “davening” suggests that, by applying an old-time Reform prejudice against anything Yiddish, he is missing a useful distinction between modes of prayer.

    I think of prayer as addressing God, whether in the vernacular or the Hebrew of the siddur, whether in the components of the fixed service or the blessings over food, study, other activities and occasions, or personal expressions of petition or gratitude. Davening, on the other hand, I read as restricted to reciting the words of the siddur, possibly enriched beyond their keva, fixed meaning, with the kavana of my personal intentionality.

    In other words, all davening is prayer, but not all prayer is davening; and using the word davening helps reinforce the idea that the ancient words of the siddur can be read in a frame of mind that adjusts those words of the prayer to incorporate the need of the pray-er.

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