Dvar Torah from Rosh Hashana 5778 (2017) by Heena Reiter, Rabbinic Pastor

I am going to talk today about faith. First I’ll lay the groundwork with some general thoughts about on being a human being, especially when things are difficult – or, as some prefer to say, challenging – and about how, for some people, faith seems to make life less difficult. Then I’ll share what I learned this past year when I studied what traditional Judaism teaches about faith and how I felt about what I’d learned.

Laying the groundwork
It seems to me that being a human being often means being asked to do what seems impossible or to tolerate what seems intolerable. You could be facing a difficult situation at work, a conflict with a loved one, a painful interaction with friend, your own or loved one’s health issues, other private matters or the impact on you of what’s happening in your community or the world. Any one of these can seem impossible or intolerable.

We have an example in the Torah portion we will be reading today, when Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, is asked to do the impossible! What enabled him to seemingly trust that it would turn out all right – that God would provide?

What happens when we are asked to do the impossible or tolerate the intolerable? At the most basic level, an inner pressure mounts and discomfort arises. I’m annoyed, displeased, hurt, frustrated, sad or frightened. I don’t like the feeling. It’s uncomfortable. I want to respond to what’s happening appropriately, intelligently, kindly or gently but the inner pressure is so unpleasant. I feel as if I can’t stand it. Or, I can’t figure out what to do, so I become helpless, paralyzed.

This discomfort could happen in the immediate moment or it could be after the fact. The situation occurred just now, or hours ago, or it’s been going on for days, weeks, months, or years. I simply can’t find a solution. One small example:

I’m having a conflict with a colleague. Every effort to address it backfires. The emotional heat between us is only escalating. I’ve thought about it, discussed it with intelligent advisors and counselors. I’m told to ignore it; I’m told to confront it directly. Ignoring it is unrealistic. Addressing it seems dangerous. I cannot see a solution.

Sometimes, difficulties like this come in bunches and from all directions. A Jewish friend said to me recently, “I’m really ready to stop being tested as to how much I can handle.” She laughed, yet I knew her emotional suffering was trying her to the utmost.

We have a Yiddish saying, “s’ez schwer tse zayin a mensch,” [Sez shware tse zayin a mensch], it’s difficult to be a human being.

Just for a moment, if you haven’t already thought of one, think about a situation that you’re facing that seem impossible or intolerable to you. Put a name to it, one or two words. We’ll come back to it.…. Thank you.

Yes, it’s difficult to be a human being, but what’s a Jew supposed to do about the impossible or the intolerable?! Tradition tells us we’re supposed to have faith. Let’s talk about faith for a moment.

As most of you know, I work as a chaplain at Hospice House in Charlottesville. Most of our patients and their families are Christian. Many of them have deep faith. Time and again, I hear patients and their loved ones tell me, “God has blessed me during this ordeal. I have felt His Presence continually.”

A 68-year old woman has been the primary caregiver for her 66 year old brother, with brain cancer for 5 years. They grew up, less than 2 years apart, “like twins,” she tells me. And even though he was younger, as he grew up, he was like an older brother to her, watching over her, protecting her in the schoolyard and on the streets. Now he is in his last weeks of life. Her best friend is dying and she is broken-hearted. “I feel blessed,” she tells me, “God has been good to me. I know my brother knows I’m here. God is loving us both right now. I know my brother will go to a good place, a better place when the time comes. He is at peace and I am at peace because he is at peace. God is good.” I’m listening to her; I’m nodding affirmatively. I offer a prayer based on what she said and she thanks me and blesses me. We hug. I walk out of the room, amazed by her faith.

Another example– not a hospice patient. A 75-year old man is scheduled for knee surgery. He has serious heart issues so the surgeons and anesthesiology team need to be extra careful and have warned the family that there might be a problem; he might not live through the surgery. He wants to go ahead anyway because the pain is intolerable. I pay him a pastoral care visit and he tells me, “Either I will survive the surgery and it will be successful or I will die and go to Jesus. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a win-win situation.” I listen, pray, he thanks me and smiles. I walk out of the room amazed.

These people experience a relationship to God and a kind of faith that, well, is certainly different than how I was religiously educated. From my perspective, their faith is a beautiful thing and I sometimes envy them.

So what about Jewish views on faith?

Last year, on Yom Kippur, I decided to study and journal on faith for the year. Between what I’d observed as a chaplain, and my own growing need to be able to really believe in something greater than myself, I wanted to see if I could develop my faith. I found a Jewish book called, Living Emunah: Achieving a life of serenity through faith. It’s a recent book, written by R’ David Ashear, primarily for the Orthodox community. Its teachings are based on a much older book, Duties of the Heart, by Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, who lived in the 11thC. Duties of the Heart details the principles of faith and a person’s inner relationship to themself and to God, through the metaphor of 10 gates. The book I studied deals with the 4th gate, The Gate of Trust In God.

Here are some of the basic principles of Emunah

Life does not always go according to our plans. We come upon many twists and turns… and many obstacles get in our way. Sometimes the challenges seem too great to bear….

Believing in God and trusting God in all situations, under all circumstances will bring us tranquility, especially if we repeatedly practice these principles and develop them, like a skill. Emunah allows us to understand that God, Who loves us and cares for us, is in charge and running our lives, and that He knows exactly what he’s doing.

Everything that happens in a person’ life, whether big or small, is caused directly by God, who always does what is best for us. A person does not even stub his toe, down below on Earth, unless this was decreed upon him from Above. It is a manifestation of God’s love and affection, because it provides us an opportunity to learn or improve our character or it may atone for an infraction we may have done.

If we realize that God is with us 24 hours a day, in every aspect of our lives, down to the smallest and least significant details and that He always deals kindly with us, it becomes much easier to respond to the day-to-day inconveniences that we face with a smile.

The book also includes multiple accounts of how ordinary people experienced God moving in their lives in improbable and extraordinary, seemingly miraculous ways.

Reading it, I was reminded of the faith I witness in my Christian patients and their families.

I also remembered the lovely teaching of R’ Zushya, a 17th C Hasidic rabbi, known for his piety, humility and abiding faith. His nickname was Gamzu because he always said, “Gam zu l’tovah,” this, too is for the good. Whatever happened, “Gam zu l’tovah,” this, too is for the good.

So God is in charge, always wants good for us, and cares about every detail of our lives.

I had a problem with this image of God. It sounded like God was located somewhere, some kind of entity working at a cosmic computer regulating everything. While I wanted to believe in God as being in charge and doing everything from love, I found the description just too anthroporphic and, frankly, unrealistic.

A few months into this project, I came across a meditation teacher online who was teaching about non-duality and I began listening to his teachings. The basic message I heard is that everyone, including me, has the natural capacity to come into direct awareness of their experience in the moment. This direct awareness is a different sort of way of being present to what’s happening than what I’d been used to. I discovered that when I’m present to my experience in this way, I feel calm, peaceful and happy. Things connect more naturally and effortlessly. Outer situations and even my inner disturbances do not as easily take me away from abiding in the present moment. And when they do, I am more able to find my way back to center. For me, this is revolutionary and an answer to what I’d been seeking for the past 49 years.

Furthermore, I came to recognize that being present in the moment, in its effect, is not really different than practicing Emunah. Being present to the moment with awareness gives me the same sense of peace, happiness and safety that comes from having faith in God. It does not come, however, from a belief in God, it comes from being present and experiencing the moment directly. When I say experiencing the moment directly, I mean that I am free of appraising what’s happening, I’m not adding anything to it from the past or using it to predict or imagine the future. The moment is clear, as itself, unadorned.

Still, I have to laugh and wonder whether “God” was behind my finding this teacher. I had a strong intention, I wanted to learn faith, but traditional Jewish views of faith wasn’t doing it for me. Somehow, and I don’t know how, the universe responded to that intention.

Of course, my not believing that God exists, in the traditional sense, raises many questions about prayer – to whom am I praying when I pray? But that’s a different d’var Torah for a different time and, for those of you who are interested, there’s a great book about nondual Judaism, by R’ Jay Michaelson called, Everything Is God.

Last year, I decided to study faith because I needed to. At the beginning of this talk, I asked you to think about something that seems impossible or intolerable in your life. Can you remember what it was? I’d like to suggest that you consider what you can study or learn about within yourself, this year, that will, in the course of time, give you help you to respond to the difficulty or challenge you face. If I can be of any assistance in your journey of discovery, please let me know. I’d be happy to support you, if I’m able.

My prayer for you is that your intention be in alignment with the true you.

Heena Reiter, Rabbinic Pastor


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