Rosh Hashanah II 5781: Spiritual Maturity

As newborns, we learn that if we scream someone will answer. This is a fine lesson for a newborn to learn. However, as we grow we learn that sometimes screaming is not the answer. Sometimes it is best to be quiet. At other times, we need to be selective in choosing a trusted friend in whom we can confide. At times, we might learn that we will not always get what we want. We might learn to weigh the potential consequences of our actions. It is even possible that we will do all of these things and, in the end, we will decide to scream anyway. All of this comes with the territory of our physical and emotional growth. Yet, for some reason, we do not invest the same amount of time and energy into our spiritual growth, in the way we talk to God. The world we inhabit as adults requires a different relationship with God than we had as children. The good news is that God wants us to grow and God grows with us. As we travel life’s path, let us not forget that the Master of the Universe is in favor of our spiritual maturity.

In fact, the story of our enslavement in Egypt and our journey to freedom is also a story of our people growing up in our relationship to God. As an enslaved people, we were like a fetus in the womb. The very name of Egypt in Hebrew is, “Mitzrayim,” a narrow place. We passed through the birth canal at the shores of the Reed Sea. It was there that we first saw the presence of the Divine and said, “Zeh Eli v’anvayhu,” this is my God who I will enshrine. Why did God come to our aid? For the same reason any parent runs to pick up a crying infant. We read, “Vayishma Elokim et Na’akatam.” (Ex. 2:24) God heard our distress and hurried to embrace us.

As we grow, our ideas about God change. In our youth, God might become, l’havdil, a Santa-like figure, doling out reward and punishment. With our earthly parents, we grow to realize their limitations and imperfections. (I mean, not with my parents, whom I know are watching via the livestream, but I’ve head this happens with other parents.) So too, we children of the Holy One begin to recognize the reflection of God’s imperfections in our own. Eventually, as we read in Psalm 27, the Psalm for the High Holy Day Season, “ki avi v’imi azavuni vashem ya’asfayni.” “Though father and mother have left me, Hashem will hold me securely.” God willing it happens at a ripe old age, but eventually our parents are gone and the Divine steps in to fill the role.

I can recall the first time I wrestled with my own spiritual immaturity. It was the first time that I can recall when someone challenged my image of God. I had spent an afternoon running errands and enjoying some quality time with one of my two older sisters. When we arrived home, we began to talk about what the next day would bring. I do not remember what it was that I wanted to do the next day, but it required decent weather. I told my sister, “If it rains, I am going to be angry at God.” At nine or so years old, I assumed the Holy One had nothing better to do than to ensure the weather held out for my outdoor activities. My sister responded, “But what about all of the beautiful days God gives us? Shouldn’t we still be thankful for them even if it rains from time to time?” As I thought about her questions, I began to grow in my relationship with God.

God knows that our relationship with God will grow. I know this because every parent wants their children to grow. This summer, Aviva and I were moved to joyful tears when Moriyah played her first solo cribbage game against us and won. Cribbage has been the card game of choice in Aviva’s family for a few generations. Moriyah has been watching us play for her entire life. When the time came for her to take the reins, she proved to us that she understood enough to organize her own cards as well as to decide which to keep and which to discard. This reminds me of one of my favorite rabbinic stories. It surrounds the debate between Rabban Gamliel (Yes, the very same one I spoke about yesterday morning) and Rabbi Eliezer over the kosher status of an oven. Unable to come to an agreement on their own, the pair turn to God to settle their argument. Like a good parent, our Heavenly Parent insists that we work out our own squabbles. God says, “Your answer is not in heaven.” (BT Bava Metzia 59b) Our sages later imagine the Holy One reflecting upon this interaction and joyfully exclaiming, “My children have defeated me!” The same words jumped out of my mouth when Moriyah beat me at cribbage.

The Hasidic Master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, saw Torah as a path to growth. He understood that in order to grow, we have to have freedom in relation to Torah. Her many pathways could not remain in heaven. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak argued that God’s love for us is so strong that God was willing to experience joy even in a moment when the Divine experiences defeat.Similarly, our love for God must be so strong that we trust God to know when we are ready for spiritual maturity. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak taught that when our relationship with God is based upon love, we are called, “b’nai Yisrael,” children of Israel. However, if we insist upon serving God out of fear, not love, we revert to our days in Egypt and we are called, “avadim,” slaves. This is why the Torah had to be given at Sinai, and not in Egypt. Our path to growth had to be given and accepted with the kind of love that understands imperfection and growth. (Kedushat Levi Yitro) To be sure, we do not grow out of God. As we grow, we are not separate from our Heavenly Parent. On the contrary, The Holy One dwells within us. A parent’s love is somehow always present within a child. This is the spiritual practice of d’veykut, cleaving to God. We bind ourselves with Tefillin that contain Torah verses describing our love for God. According to the Talmud (Berachot 6a) God’s Tefillin contains verses describing God’s love for us. Just as we teach our children to love by loving them, God teaches us to love God by loving us.

This type of loving relationship sets the stage for spiritual maturity. I would like to highlight two particularly meaningful ways in which it does so. First, A God that grows with us can exist within different metaphors at different times. We are not in the habit of reciting the liturgical poem, “Anim Zemirot” at our shul. It is a gorgeous song attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, a 12th Century German scholar and Kabbalist. The song is considered so sacred that the ark is opened as it is recited. Similarly, there is debate as to whether it should be recited each Shabbat, or reserved only for Festivals or the High Holy Days. The poem describes our desire to cleave to God and the many ways in which God presents Godself to us. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you give it a read. (It can be found on page 185 in our Shabbat Sim Shalom Siddur.[1]) In one famous line, it reads, “They envisioned in You agedness and virility, and the hair of Your head as hoary and jet black. Aged on judgement day and virile on the day of battle, like a man of war whose powers are many.” As we fled from Pharoah’s army and arrived at the shores of the Reed Sea, we needed to believe in a God who could protect us. We saw the Holy One as a young and powerful warrior who would place Godself between our enemy and ourselves. Just a few months later we arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai and needed a God who could exude wisdom and instruct our young nation. There we envisioned God as one who had attained wisdom, an aged teacher who would pass what they know along to their eager students.

 As I’ve tried to illustrate, our ideas about God change over our lifetime. Or, it may be that they do not change, but we layer different ways of thinking about God at different times. When we want to express gratitude, or joy, to the Holy One, it might benefit us to feel childlike. When we are faced with something complicated in the world that we would like to change, we need God to hold us in a more nuanced way. Theology is not a one size fits all garment. However, I have found that spiritual immaturity is problematic when contending with a broken world.

The second way that this approach to the Divine sets the stage for a meaningful Divine human relationship is that it allows for what Professor Dov Weiss calls, “Pious Irreverence.” This is the idea that our tradition encourages us to confront God. We are familiar with the story of Abraham arguing with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. We may be less familiar with the many Midrashim in which Moses argues with God to not destroy Israel after the sin of the golden calf. The Talmud (Berachot 32a) recounts the story of how, “Moses took hold of God, like one who seizes his fellow by his garment, and said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.’” Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) envisions God and Moses playing tug-o-war with the Tablets of the Law until Moses overpowers God, takes hold of the tablets, and smashes them.  We Children of Israel are the descendants of Jacob, who wrestled with God and prevailed. This pious irreverence is written into our spiritual DNA. To deny it would be to reject an essential aspect of ourselves with which God originally fell in love so many generations ago.

How do we begin this process of wrestling with our spiritual maturity? I suggest starting from the same narrow place from which our ancestors cried out in Egypt. Except, we have to have the clarity that this alone is not the destination. As individuals, we want to arrive at Sinai. We need to serve and be served with love.

I shared a story about my older daughter, Moriyah a bit ago. I will conclude with one about my younger daughter, Nili. Recently, Nili came home from school completely drained. After so many days home during this pandemic, the adjustment back to school has been wonderful and difficult. I pulled into the garage and she did not even want to get out of the car. She began screaming about how her backpack was too heavy for her to lift. After I got over my frustration, I began to reason with her. More importantly, I began to listen to her. She said, “Abba, it wasn’t about my backpack. I just needed to scream. Now I did and I’m ready to get out of the car.” Here was a five year old who found the emotional maturity to process what she needed in a time of exhaustion and frustration. Yet, we as adults often lack the spiritual maturity to know what we need from our Creator.

As Nili was able to figure out what she needed in this moment, we must remember that God can be what we need in any given moment. We must have the spiritual maturity to see God as a young warrior, an elder teacher, a comforting parent, a healer, a judge, and a force for loving kindness. Sometimes we need the Holy Blessed One to tell us what to do and other times we need to exercise our God-given right to be piously irreverent. Perhaps there are times when we need to consider ourselves children of God, and others when it suits us to be seen as servants. In a mature relationship that is complex and multifaceted, The Master of the Universe can be all of these things.On this anniversary of the creation of the world, let us partner with the Holy One to create a new relationship based upon our mutual needs, love and growth.

Shana Tovah u’Metukah. Wishing you a good and sweet New Year. May we be written and inscribed for only good in 5781.

[1] I am indebted to my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Green, for encouraging me to spend time with this song and teaching me the texts that are the backbone of the Torah I am teaching today.

One thought on “Rosh Hashanah II 5781: Spiritual Maturity

  1. Someday I need to meet your parents. They did a wonderful job raising you, You and the wonderful wife you chose, our daughter from another wonderful mother, are doing in raising our grandchildren. I hope that you will continue to try and bring G-d back onto the life of the one who taught you about those sunny days. After so many dark ones I think she is working hard to accept that there may be sunny ones. Thank you for being the one I can confide in and come to for help and guidance at any time. Never saying what to do but giving me choices to allow me and G-d to find an answer together. At my Old Age you are now the teacher. I hope someday I will be able to reach Spiritual Maturity. You know how proud we are of your accomplishments. May this year bring only Sunny Days for us all. ❤️

    Sent from my iPhone



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