(This past week marked the 35th anniversary of my ordination. It happened that I also was asked to reflect on the impact of one of my teachers, and it brought to mind a midrash that changed my theology and allowed it to evolve. That midrash came from the collection Sifrei Devarim section 313 and the relevant piece is below. What follows are the remarks I delivered at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, VA, where I hold the title of Rabbi Emeritus.)
"He built Him" (Deut 32:10): Before Abraham came to the world, it seemed (as it were, kiv'yakhol) as if the Holy One Blessed be He were king of the heavens alone, viz. (Gen. 24:7) "O L-rd, G-d of the heavens, who took me, etc." But when Abraham came to the world, he enthroned Him over heaven and earth, viz. (Ibid. 3) "And I will have you swear by the L-rd, G-d of heaven and G-d of earth."
I just came back from a wonderful trip to Israel with an interfaith group. I was approached by Rev. Larry Hayward from Westminster Presbyterian to repeat the success of our first trip together 5 years ago. The timing did not seem right for Agudas Achim, so Beth El Hebrew Congregation agreed to partner with Westminster and I came along for the ride. A few members of this congregation participated. We had a great and meaningful time.
Among the questions that were raised in the evening we all sat together in Jerusalem to process our experiences was one about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. If you have been there, you know that the reported site of the manger has been embellished and expanded. At least three different Christian traditions claim to mark the official location of the holiest site, and they are not the same as the others. Which one is the right one, the questioner wanted to know.
In a different context, I had been thinking about the authenticity of holy sites. Jewish, Christian or Muslim, all of the sites we visited were dependent on some received tradition that was passed along and modified by word of mouth for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The Bible, the Gospels, the Qur’an and various historical documents made many claims. Some of them have evidence discovered by archaeologists, but there is no definitive proof of any of them.
So I offered my answer, not just about the Church of the Nativity, but about all the holy sites, and this was it:
Nothing happened there. No matter what anyone says, nothing happened there. It is the same at every holy spot. Nothing happened there.
Yet, the world depends on you believing the sacred lies we tell each other. Just as our ancestor rabbis radically affirmed, God is not present in this world without our belief – kiv’yakhol.
But you have to ask, what makes our sacred lies different from the falsehoods we deride and the stories we insist are fiction? Why does our belief in God mean something holy rather than merely a version of clapping to save Tinkerbell’s life in a play?
And the answer is that we cannot live without truth. And let me tell you a truth. There is no reason we should be here in a universe of ten billion billion galaxies. The existence of this world is a statistical impossibility. The existence of the human race is a statistical impossibility within that that impossibility. And the existence of you? You would finish reciting every digit of Pi before writing all of the zeroes after the decimal point of that possibility.
Plain lies are an insult. Pretending and contrived magic tricks are a diversion from the reality of our world. But faith, the suspension of disbelief, is necessary to give the impossibility of our life meaning. Without meaning, the literal miracle of our lives is of no more significance than a fruit fly.
And we are more significant than a fruit fly. How much more?
How much faith do you have?
So which sacred fabrication, which holy lie should you believe of the many we encounter? It is the one that insists you love the other impossible miracles among whom you live, your fellow human beings. It is the one that makes you recognize that you are part of something larger – your family, your community, your religion and, ultimately, your universe, the universe from which you impossibly appeared and to which you will most certainly return.
Annie Dillard is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who wrote these words in her beautiful book For the Time Being, a title I encourage you to say in as many ways as you can. This is what she said, slightly edited:
"There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death.
“It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said ‘Maid, arise’ to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture...
“‘Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,’ says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, ‘If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.’… ‘God’ is the awareness of the infinite in each of us. “
Before Abraham, it was as if God was not present in this world – kiv’yakhol.