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.