Parshat Acharei Mot | Saturday, May 7, 2016
The parsha begins with a description of the ritual that took place in the Tabernacle and the Temple on Yom Kippur. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would enter into the Holy of Holies, the inner part of the Temple Sanctuary, on this one occasion during the year. He would go past the curtain, that signified the entrance of the Holy Sanctuary, and there would invoke the presence of God, carrying out the special ritual for the day. The ritual was complex, detailed, long, and difficult. As the version of it is recounted in the Mahzor, our High Holiday prayerbook, we learn that the Priest was in the sanctuary for many hours of Yom Kippur, and that all the Israelites stood outside, just waiting for word on how the ritual was going. Finally, when he did emerge after completing the ritual, the entire people would rejoice with great celebration.
For a ritual as complex, and important as this one, it’s interesting how the description begins, and also how it ends. At the beginning:
כְּתֹנֶת־בַּד קֹדֶשׁ יִלְבָּשׁ וּמִכְנְסֵי־בַד יִהְיוּ עַל־בְּשָׂרוֹ וּבְאַבְנֵט בַּד יַחְגֹּר וּבְמִצְנֶפֶת בַּד יִצְנֹף בִּגְדֵי־קֹדֶשׁ הֵם
“He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flex, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacred vestments.” (Lev 16:4)
And at the end:
וּבָא אַהֲרֹן אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּפָשַׁט אֶת־בִּגְדֵי הַבָּד אֲשֶׁר לָבַשׁ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְהִנִּיחָם שָׁם:
“And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there.” (Lev 16:23)
For such an important and sacred ritual, it’s surprising there is this focus on the clothes that he wore. We don’t usually think of clothing as having much spiritual content. In fact, we oftentimes view them as just the opposite, Something materialistic and superficial. But in fact, they can serve a sacred purpose, just as they do here. In this setting, they represent purity. The Kohen goes before God in pure, white clothes, to present himself as he really is.
Clothing can represent pieces of who we are, at any given moment in time. And just like other aspects of ourselves, we grew into them, and out of them. When we are children, we wear clothes of one size and style. But as we grow older, bigger, and more mature, we change our clothes and leave those of our childhood behind.
The same thing occurs with many of our childhood favorites. Our tastes in activities, in entertainment, in food, all of these mature along with us as we age out of childhood. As much fun as it may sound, it’s not so acceptable for adults to eat five different types of candy, while coloring and watching cartoons. Just like it doesn’t really look quite right for me to be wearing the same tie I did when I was 9-years old. We’ve simply outgrown them.
But why is it, that there is one thing many of us don’t ever really outgrow from our childhood, and that is our understanding and image of God.
We’re taught from a young age that God is everywhere. That God sees and knows everything, that God is all-good and all-powerful, and that He is always there protecting us. For children of a young age, this makes perfect sense and is exactly the message we should teach them. It helps them understand the world around them, gives them something to believe in, and creates a beautiful image of our God. The problem though, is how many of us still have that same belief of God? Have we given real thought to what exactly is the God we believe in? We’ve outgrown just about every other area of our childhood beliefs, so why do we hold on to this one?
This is something I know is difficult for many of us to talk about. Challenging some of our deeply-held religious beliefs isn’t a comfortable thing to do. It’s something that I struggled with for a long time, and something I’m still not sure I feel great about doing. Why all this hesitancy? It comes from a fear that if we start pulling away the threads of our clothes, the threads of our beliefs, we won’t like what we are left with. We’re afraid to ask these big questions, because we’re afraid of what the answers might be.
But asking these big questions is also our only way to grow, our only way to come up with something that we can really believe in and really stand by. Because if we are to be truly rational, truly modern in our thought process, we have to outgrow this childhood belief, because it simply does not work.
There’s a debate in philosophical circles known as the Problem of Evil. This takes this simplistic understanding of God and breaks it down into statements. 1. God is all-good. 2. God is all-powerful. But then we add in a third statement based on our observation of the world, Evil exists. All three of these statements cannot be true. There cannot logically be an all-powerful, entirely good God that permits evil to exist in the world. The philosophers and theologians then begin to discuss, which of these statements is the one that isn’t true.
There are some who suggest that it’s the final statement, that evil exists, is the statement that is not true. However, we don’t need to think very hard to find fault with this. Just this past Thursday we observed Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust commemoration day. This is without question an example of pure evil, that all of us in this room continue to be effected by even today. Surely we must admit that we do live in a world where there is Evil.
So what about the next statement. God is all good. Is this true? If God is not all good, then the argument continues that God has a role to play in the evil in the world. God is intentionally causing people to suffer. God is intentionally giving people disease. God was there, and had a role to play in the Shoah. This too is not a statement I can accept. I don’t believe our tradition teaches us that God has evil in Him or that he is complicit in causing it. There is too much talk and too many examples of Hesed throughout our sacred texts for me to accept that God is not all-good.
So that leaves the final statement. God is all-powerful. This for me is the one that has to give. This is the one that I believe cannot be true. This is the belief that I have outgrown. I believe it is possible for God to be powerful, without being all-power. There is much that God can control, but there is also much He cannot.
At first, this was not a belief I felt comfortable having, let along expressing in public. Raised as an observant Jew and now in my role as a Rabbi, how could I think something like this which seems to go against so much of what we are taught and what we think we know. We always call God “Master of the Universe,” “the King of Kings.” Surely He must have this power. However, he just doesn’t. Does this make me heretical? Does this go against our Tradition that I strive to represent in everything I do?
I don’t believe so. We are a people of questioners, we are a people who are constantly struggling with our beliefs. The very name Israel, from which we derive our identity means to struggle with God. For me that struggle has led me to the understanding that there are some things which God cannot control.
In my reading, I’ve found I’m not alone in this thought. Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, reached the same conclusion following the death of his son at age 14. Rabbi Milton Steinberg, author of As a Driven Leaf, also came to this understanding from his years of study of Jewish text. In the years following the Shoah, many philosophers and many individuals also came to believe this, choosing to realize that this explanation for the Problem of Evil is far more palatable than any other.
Not only this, but for me it also makes God much more accessible and approachable. If God is all powerful, if God is truly perfect, it is something that is so far beyond my ability to grasp. It’s something I can never reach and never truly comprehend. But with a God who is not perfect, I see something that has flaws, just as I do. I see something I can relate to and strive to be like. This is the God that I know is there, and is truly the one I keep inside my heart.
Even if God is not all-powerful, He can still play an important role in our lives. God is still there accompanying us and protecting us, but it also means we have to protect ourselves. God is still there guiding us, but we have to be willing to follow and come along on the journey. God still has blessed us with the words of the Torah and all the Mitzvot, but we must be eager to make them important in our lives. It is in this partnership that I most find God, and it is just that, a partnership, because God is not all-powerful and cannot do it on His own.
I hope this discussion doesn’t make me a heretic, and I hope that it doesn’t push anyone too far. But I do hope that it does push us and does make us think, that it makes us question our beliefs and feel comfortable discussing them. Oftentimes we shy away from discussing these matters publicly for fear of what others might think, but it’s my hope that this can be an example of how we can and should feel about discussing what it is we do believe, and what it is we don’t.
Many aspects of ourselves change over time. The things we enjoy, the food we like, and yes our beliefs about God. When the time comes that we outgrow some of those, we leave them behind, just like the clothes that no longer fit us. It is my hope that we all will keep on thinking about our own beliefs of God and whether or not they still fit us. But also to remember that just because we leave one thing behind, it does not mean we leave it all. My own questioning, my own theological journey has at some points made belief difficult, but in the end I have found that this questioning, and leaving certain parts behind, has made the belief stronger.
Just as the Kohen Gadol changed his clothes before entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, so too should we feel comfortable changing our clothes, and changing our beliefs when they don’t fit us anymore. Please continue to question, continue to discuss these ideas with me, with your family, your friends, anyone you feel comfortable with.
Thank you for being open, thank you for sharing this discussion with me, and Shabbat Shalom.
Note: Much of this sermon is based on many classes and conversations with my incredible teachers Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Rabbi Ed Feinstein