Keeping the Faith

Kol Nidre | September 22, 2015

Rabbi Howard Tilman

What a year it has been. When I stood here last Kol Nidrei night, I was a new face to many in this room, a new voice with the same bad jokes. In the year that has passed, so much has happened. I’d like to think that my face is more familiar to you, and that my jokes have maybe gotten a little better. Maybe. Over this year I’ve come to know many people in this room, and have always felt at home in this community. Of course, now with Naomi joining me here, that feeling has only grown stronger. To think that we will be married on this very spot in just 81 days is quite something.

Even with all the wonderful moments of this first year, there is one moment in particular  that stands out. It was on a Friday afternoon, driving a group of students to a Middle-School Mitzvah Trip. Before setting out on the road, the students asked if we could take a picture of our group. And we did:

That moment, getting to take a “selfie” with four middle school students, and not only that, having them ask me if I could tag them in the picture on Instagram, was the moment I knew I had begun to make a difference.

So yes, this is where I admit that I am on Instagram. And you can follow me, after the holiday of course. Instagram for those who may be unfamiliar, is one of the newer social media applications and is a platform for sharing pictures like this one. Sure, there are many silly pictures that come your way, a lot of pictures of food, many pictures of travel destinations, and yes, there are far too many selfies. But even amidst all of the youthful fun, there are opportunities for growth, education and even spirituality. For example, you can follow the White House, and see pictures from around the West Wing of all that happens behind the scenes. Or you can follow “That Jewish Moment,” a woman who sketches thoughts and scenes from her life as an observant Jew.

But of all the people that I follow on Instagram, the one I appreciate most, even checking in above the Philadelphia Eagles and Northwestern Wildcats, is the account of Commander Scott Kelly, a NASA Astronaut who is in the process of spending one full year in space, living aboard the International Space Station. Just this past week in fact, Kelly as well as Cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, hit the six month mark on their joint year in space. The mission is part of a scientific experiment to study the effects of long-term space travel on the human body and mind. Scientists will study both the physical and psychological impacts this year in space has on the two men as a way of gauging the challenges of long-distance space travel and the possibilities of future missions to an Asteroid and even to Mars.

While maintaining his busy schedule of experiments and daily operations aboard the Space Station, Commander Kelly manages to squeeze in time for photography. He takes many pictures of his daily life in space, and posts those pictures to Instagram. From following him you can see pictures of weightlessness in action, high-tech control panels, and other astronauts just kind of goofing around. But the best pictures he posts, are the many stunning shots of the view outside his window. Like this one:…

This one:…

This one:…

Or this one:…

Each of these pictures are uniquely beautiful. Seeing the earth from above, seeing the above from earth, and now, seeing the above from above, has been something that’s fascinated me my entire life. From watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a kid, to beginning college as a Physics & Astronomy major (yes, it’s true), and even now simply stopping to look at the stars while walking home from shul on a Friday night, I have always been fascinated by astronomy – yearning to understand what is happening in the universe and trying to figure out what else is “out there.” As such, the scientist in me sees these pictures and knows what is happening in each one. Light is refracted at different wavelengths and results in beautiful colors in the heavens. Without the interference of the atmosphere, our views from space are much darker and much clearer, allowing us to see far more distant galaxies than from on earth. And that sunspots cause solarwinds and particles from the sun to interact with Earth’s magnetic fields and the gases in our atmosphere creating the beautiful Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

Intellectually I understand what is happening in each of the pictures. But spiritually, I cannot look at these pictures without feeling the presence of God. Seeing the purple and green waves of the Aurora appears the same as how I imagine the power of God to be. I cannot look at these images without a sense of awe, not just at knowing what happens, but the fact that this does happen at all. That the universe works in these magnificent and wondrous ways, creating these awesome images. Seeing these images from the heavens, I cannot help but wonder what else is up there in the heavens? What is behind all of these majestically beautiful scenes?

Inherent in this wondering about the heavens is a tension that I know many of us face in our modern lives. Here we are, looking upwards, and we struggle whether to think about the scientific questions of what is out there, or the spiritual questions of what brought this all into being? This is a tension that exists in other areas of our lives too. There was a time when the only thing we knew to be All-Powerful was God; now for each of our needs, Apple has an app for that. While there was a time when the source of all knowledge and information was the omniscient and all-knowing God, now within three tenths of a second, Google can answer any question we may have. In a world where technology gives us all this, what is left for spirit and religion to offer?

In every new survey, in every new Pew Study that comes out, we see that religious practice is fading across the board. Our faith is losing the battle to our fascinations. Where then is the place of religion?

Unfortunately the instances religion is often discussed are the times we’d rather it not be. When states work to pass “religious freedom laws” with the intent of discrimination. When terrorists behead people in front of a camera and destroy ancient sites of culture in the name of their god and faith. Is this all that remains for religion? To be the excuse for archaic thoughts and practices that modern society can do without?

When we hear about religion today we hear about it as a relic of days of old. As the opposite of science and as an impediment to progress. In 2015 it seems like you’re either modern, or you’re religious.

As many of you know, I love watching Jeopardy!. I always get particularly excited when a category comes up about the Bible. Here’s a chance to test my chops against the talented contestants. And what invariably happens? These categories are left for the very end and the contestants stand with blank stares, no one willing to admit they don’t know Sarah from Samuel or Jacob from Josiah. Here they are, well-educated in academia, literature, science, philosophy, but clueless about religion. They too live what many of us are feeling. That to be a well-educated, literate, and intelligent member of modern society, is to have nothing to do with religion.

Our intellectual and scientific communities have explained so much, that our sense of wonder, our sense of awe, our sense of spirit, struggle to find inspiration. Curiosity in the modern world is there to try to explain everything – to learn the causes, to understand the methods, or even to suggest something better – but it is spirituality that allows us to be amazed at what we see.

And it takes both curiosity and spirituality together to truly understand the world around us.

Many of our great thinkers, both Jewish and non, have found this balance in their outlooks. William James, the great American philosopher wrote, “How infinitely passionate a thing like religion at its highest flights can be. Like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, it adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deductible (sic) from anything else.”

“An enchantment.” This is how James thinks of religion. It adds enchantment and wonder to our lives. The wonder of seeing a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic. The wonder of seeing children volunteer for important causes around the city. And yes, the wonder of being with an entire congregation as it comes together to mourn the loss of a community leader who was taken far too soon.

It’s the same wonder that our great theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” he said. “To get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.  To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Yes, to be spiritual is to be amazed, both at the natural wonder that is in this world, but also at the beauty we create in it. The beauty we create by gathering with our families to light the Shabbat candles each week. The beauty of listening to the distinctive melody of Kol Nidrei each year. And the beautiful moments when we celebrate life’s milestones in the same way our ancestors have for countless generations.

It is this amazement, this sense of awe, that led us to be here in the first place. In a few weeks we’ll begin reading from the Torah the story of Avraham. While the Torah gives us many details about Avraham’s life, it does not explain how Avraham came to believe in one God. According to Maimonides, when Avraham was a young boy, his mind began to wonder about the world around him.  Day and night he would watch the sun rise and set, the moon and stars regularly come into their places and move across the sky.  Watching this choreographed dance, Avraham was overcome with a sense of awe.  How can the world exist in this way, without a single being controlling it and causing it to function with such precision?  There had to be a single God that made all this possible.  Thus, according to Maimonides, it was Avraham’s sense of wonder and awe that led him to believe in God. (Rambam, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:3)

Can we still say the same for ourselves? If we wonder, if we feel awe at all, does that lead us to God? Or does it just give us something else to look up on Wikipedia?

There is no better example of this feeling of awe than one particular moment of the Yom Kippur service. Tomorrow afternoon, our liturgy reenacts the Avodah service, the sacred ritual that took place in the Temple on Yom Kippur. It’s detailed, it’s bloody, it’s messy, but it’s also poetic. Towards the end of the service there is a Piyut, a liturgical poem called מראה כהן. It describes the moment the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest would exit the Holy of Holies after completing the ritual. Now remember, this was a very complex ritual that was only done on this one day a year. Would the Kohen Gadol perform it correctly? Would he survive the dangerous aspects of it? Even more than the difficult nature of performing the ritual, the fate of the entire people rested on the outcome of it. Would God accept their atonements? Would they be sealed in the book of life? At the very moment the High Priest emerges from the Holy of Holies the poem describes the look on his face. Not tired, not relieved, not worried, but instead, “splendid.”

״אֱמֶת מַה נֶּהְדָּר הָיָה כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל בְּצֵאתוֹ מִבֵּית קָדְשֵׁי הַקָּדָשִׁים״

“Truly how splendid was the High Priest, as he came out of the Holy of Holies… Like the heavenly canopy stretched out over the angels, like the lightning flashes from the radiance of the heavenly beings, like the image of a rainbow appearing in the midst of a cloud, like a rose in the heart of a lovely garden, like love that appears on a bridegroom’s countenance, like Venus, the morning star on the eastern horizon. Such was the appearance of the High Priest.”

This description is the truest one there is of an “awesome moment.” Not awesome in the 90’s sort of way, but awesome as in the shocking and wondrous kind of way. The anonymous author of this poem does not seek to describe this moment, but to recreate it, with images in our minds. Since language would not let him fully depict the power of this moment, he instead brings us to other moments we know to have the same power. In this instance, these pictures, these images, truly are worth more than 1,000 words.

Enchantment, amazement, awe, wonder –  whatever word we use to best capture this indescribable feeling, it’s something that happens, something that we know, something that we feel deeply in our hearts. Heschel calls this “ineffable.” “(The) aspect of reality, which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension and is acknowledged by the mind to be beyond the scope of the mind.” I’d like to suggest that maybe this ineffable feeling that we have, this is the place for us to find God, to find our faith in the 21st century.

Faith gives us comfort, it gives us community, it gives us a sense of meaning. That each moment in our lives, both the mundane and the holy, are connected to something larger.

Faith gives us the ability to wonder what is, but also to wonder what if? When we see the awesome in our world, the things that give us the ineffable Godly feeling, we are inspired to ask ourselves how can this be. To wonder what is causing this. And there we find our faith. So too, when we see the things that make us worry. When we see something in this world that is not the way we need it to be. Here too it is that same feeling that inspires us to ask what if? What if we made it a priority to recognize the moments of awe in each day. What if we stepped away from our distractions one day each week, to appreciate the opportunity to simply be present. What if we chose to live an entire year Jewishly, immersing ourselves in our tradition. Or what if we decided to spend a year living in space.

Just three days ago, as Scott Kelly passed the six month mark on his year in space, he sent an email to everyone who subscribes to the White House mailing list. In it he wrote, “I have learned that human potential is limitless and we should never stop pushing the boundaries of exploration.” And he is of course correct. The potential for what we can do and what we can achieve does seem to know no boundaries. “Over the past half century, we’ve split the atom, we’ve spliced the gene and we’ve roamed Tranquility Base. We’ve reached for the stars and never have we been closer to having them in our grasp.” (West Wing, 100,000 Airplanes) But we must also continue to push the boundaries of our spirit, exploring inwards just as much as we explore outwards.

Every time I see a new post from Commander Kelly, and the many awe-inspiring images from the heavens, I still feel that tension between the intellect and the spiritual, the fact and the faith. I want to appreciate them solely for what they are, but I cannot help appreciate them for the impact they have on me and my spirit. As Thoreau wrote looking out at Walden pond:

“I, standing twenty miles off, see a crimson cloud in the horizon. You tell me it is a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothing to the purpose, for this red vision excited me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow, and I have new and indescribable fancies… If there is not something mystical in your explanation, something unexplainable to the understanding, some elements of mystery, it is quite insufficient. If there is nothing in it which speaks to my imagination, what boots it?” (Quoted in “Baseball as a Road to God,” by John Sexton. p 35)

As we enter into this new year, let us remember to have moments in our lives that stir our blood, that make our thoughts flow. Let us find the wonder and awe in ourselves and our spirit. And let us make sure that even as we progress into the 21st century, that we are always keeping the faith.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah and Shanah Tovah