Kol Nidre 5783
October 4, 2022
Are You There, God?
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Jordan Greenstein’s parents rushed the family out of the house to hurry to Kol Nidre services. As they got to the synagogue and made their way to their seats, Jordan couldn’t help wondering what the fuss was all about. The family did not make service attendance much of a priority during the remainder of the year, and Jordan wouldn’t have defined them as “religious.”
Jordan posed the question to the adults: “You don’t seem to be very focused on the service. I’ve never really heard you pray. So why do we get all dressed up to come here and talk to God?”
“You’re mistaken,” Jordan’s parents answered. “We’re not here to talk to God.” They gestured further down in the row of seats. “You know the Goldschmidt family, right?”
“The Goldschmidt family comes here to talk to God. We just come here to talk to the Goldschmidts.”
Whatever reasoning happened to draw you here tonight initially, I hope we can agree that this season seems to afford us a prime opportunity to speak with God.
But where to begin? The traditional liturgy for Yom Kippur actually presents the prayer leader—mirroring the actions of the High Priest at the time when the Temple stood—entering into a conversation with God on behalf of the congregation: “Here I am. So poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You to whom Israel sings praise.”
But perhaps that’s too formal… How about…Are You there, God? It’s me, Alan. No? But it worked for Judy Blume?!
I’ve been reading this book by an author named John Roedel. It’s called Hey God. Hey John. John is a comedian and writer who started posting his conversations with God on Facebook; his book collects them all in one place. They’re occasionally humorous, occasionally mundane; occasionally poignant; and occasionally profound. I figured, if John Roedel can sit down on any ordinary day and enter into dialogue with the Divine, why can’t I do so during this holy season?
In the 1970s, Princeton psychology professor Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he suggested that human consciousness began only in the 2nd century BCE. I don’t mean to oversimplify Jaynes’ thesis, but he essentially suggests that prior to that time, the left and right hemispheres of the human brain did not effectively communicate with one another. So if an idea arose in one hemisphere to, for instance, leave one’s home and go on a quest, the other hemisphere might impel one to do so. Without understanding that that urge originated internally, an individual might then ascribe it to the voice of a god steering them in such a direction. According to this argument, prophecy and other religious experiences may have just been a function of individuals not understanding how to understand and utilize their inner voice.
I don’t bring up Jaynes’ work to discount or dismiss the possibility of meaningful interfacing with God. On the contrary, I think we can heighten our experience of spirituality if we understand God to be an extension of our highest selves. When we pray to and converse with God through our internal dialogue, we are, in my opinion, giving voice to our highest aspirations.
Still, it’s often not an easy thing for us to talk to God. It’s difficult, and perhaps disconcerting, to engage in such a dialogue when all of the normal feedback mechanisms that we rely upon in other conversations have been disrupted. There is no eye contact to be made with God, no body language to read, no empirical proof that we’ve received a direct response to our inquiries. Speaking with God requires, if you will, a leap of faith.
But, despite the hurdles, I set out to have a chat with God. Maybe my conversation might inspire you to do the same. The answers you glean might be different than what God said to me, but I hope the conversation will be meaningful nonetheless.
I began by telling God that it is becoming increasingly hard for me to watch what’s going on in the world and pretend that everything is really fine. It leads one to ask God, “Where have You been?”
Tradition tells us that God is everywhere. But if God is really in all places at all times, then of course God knows that there is incredible suffering and pain. Surely God sees so many people who are foundering, searching desperately for answers. It leads to another question: why does the pattern of troubles persist? As Abraham asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
But I recognize that an all-knowing, omnipresent God is not unaware of these difficulties. Every day, God bears witness to, and hears complaints about, environmental issues; a struggling economy; political unrest; grotesque acts of gun violence; rampant antisemitism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny; the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another.
It led me to wonder, though, why a God who is aware of these issues doesn’t seem to intervene. But in our conversation, God noted that such an accusation is not really fair. Torah teaches that we are created in God’s image. Yet over the centuries, humanity has also molded God in our image, making God into the being we can never hope to be, with many of the qualities to which we aspire. We have defined God as all-powerful, ever-present and all-knowing, because we’ve assumed that we need God to check all of those boxes. We expect that if we have a God Who fits such a definition, then anytime we need something, we can call out and God will wave a celestial magic wand and fix it.
The problem is that if God doesn’t respond to our hopes and prayers in the way we’d like, some may leap to the conclusion that God doesn’t care about the world, or has abandoned us.
I spoke about belief on Erev Rosh HaShanah. Because belief is so precarious, some abandon their faith convictions rather readily when things don’t go according to their expectations. God reminded me that the Divine Presence is here whenever we choose to call upon God. Because we are God’s witnesses, God is able to continue to be God. Even in those moments where God may seem to be absent, God knows what goes on in the world, and is ever-present.
At the same time, God cannot, or chooses not to, intervene in everything. If we think about it, we probably wouldn’t really want a world shaped in this manner. We would become little more than glorified marionettes, with God guiding our every move. There would be no room for spontaneity, for passion, or for deliberation. But God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Therefore, we have free will to think and choose our courses of action. Of course, since we have free will, so does everyone else—from the most compassionate to the most sociopathic. That’s the painful dilemma inherent in the way humanity was designed. That’s why occasionally God feels the need to pull back, and let us all work it out amongst ourselves.
Of course, in this season when we are called upon to make amends for mistakes that we have made, it might be logical to ask why God doesn’t say, ‘I am sorry’ for having created humanity with an innate inclination toward evil from birth? So in my conversation with God, I asked this question. And God responded that if we are inclined to be disappointed or angry, that this is also a welcome encounter with the Divine. Even if we revile God, we are at least engaging.
God reminded me of a core teaching from Lurianic Kabbalah, a mystical understand of Judaism. Before creation, God’s glory filled all of the universe. But when the creation of the world began, God had to engage in the act of tzimtzum, reducing the Divine Presence in the world somewhat so that others would have a chance to thrive and flourish. But the same tzimtzum that left room for creativity and caring also left room for destruction and misbehavior.
We look out at “bad actors” in the world and may lament that they appear to go unpunished, that there is no “fear of God” in them. But God does not want to be feared; God wants to be respected, loved, and even regarded with awe occasionally. We address God during the High Holidays as Avinu Malkeinu—a Parent and a Ruler. We affirm that God can handle both of those roles, sometimes simultaneously. On the one hand, God can be gentle, welcoming, and comforting—the role of many a parent. God also can have precise expectations, rules, and laws—similar to the sovereign of a nation. Since God has the ability to make a point in these ways, there’s no need for fire and brimstone.
Still, in my conversation with God, I found myself longing for one small miracle every now and then, just to remind us of God’s presence in the world. But God noted that any such act is only likely to convince those already primed to appreciate God’s presence. As the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, the world is full of miracles and wonders, yet we choose to take our hands and cover your eyes and see nothing.
The fact is, humans created most of the issues that many of us are now finding so demoralizing and upsetting. So, it’s up to humanity to come together to resolve them.
God gave humanity stewardship over the earth, and gave us all free will in our dealings with the world, and in our dealings with one another. All that God asked in return was that you not hurt or destroy the world, or our fellow creatures. When individuals or groups have violated this trust, that’s been their choice. It hurts and upsets God tremendously. But the alternative was never having created humanity in the first place.
At this point in my conversation with God, I fell back upon the age-old question: “Why do You let bad things happen to good people? Why don’t we ever seem to see punishment for those who behave contrary to your expectations? Why don’t you come down and at least shake your fists at the bad folks, occasionally?
And I think I heard God reply, “I have My means of dealing with those who misbehave. For one thing, guilt is a marvelous tool for self-correction. Each person was factory-shipped with their own internal feedback mechanism that helps them discern right from wrong, and sets their gauges to ‘icky feeling’ when they err. Most people engage in a course correction when they get into that red zone of having erred too much. But individual mileage may vary.”
In the “olden days,” God noted, there were prophets who carried God’s message to the people. But none of the prophets whose stories are recounted in the Tanakh had it easy. Isaiah was despised, shunned by humanity, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. Jeremiah was exiled. Ezekiel was thought to be suffering from psychological delusions. If God sent a prophet today, they would be ridiculed, excoriated, or executed for blasphemy. So God doesn’t rely these days in only one individual. Instead, God hopes that each individual will come to their own realization, in their own way and in their own time, of their role in healing the world.
Therefore, it’s up to each of us to figure out our purpose within this world. I heard God telling me that human life is about taking the Divine Spark that has been implanted within each of us, and striving to use it to its fullest potential. But it’s up to each of us as individuals to determine how to do that. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as human beings in search of a spiritual experience. Rather, we are spiritual beings in search of a human experience. Everybody knows the golden rule; every tradition has its own gloss on it. If it is so ingrained in human consciousness, it shouldn’t be that hard to put into action. Treat everyone decently. Be excellent to one another. The ritual stuff of Judaism is important, to be sure, but God gets even more excited when I see you all getting along with one another. Ultimately, every individual is judged on their own merit. This isn’t like there are divine scout merit badges or something. God doesn’t maintain a checklist that gives more weight to some mitzvot than others. Each of the mitzvot exist for a reason: if somebody, somewhere finds a particular mitzvah helps them feel closer to God, then it has served its purpose. If some mitzvot were weighted as more “valuable” than others, then people would just focus on the few they thought would earn them the most “points”. As it stands, many people have little awareness of the commandments besides the ten so frequently discussed and depicted in popular culture. Having a good life—one that God will bless and record in the book of blessing—requires action. One can probably lead a pretty satisfying life if you just sit around passively and let the world go by you, but it’s not really “living.” On the other hand, if we engage in good works, and do things that we are proud of, then God will be proud of us too.
It may surprise us to realize that it’s relatively easy to behave in a way that makes God happy. Many people have made their fortunes off of trying to tell others what God expects. The difficulty arises when people preach the complexity of God so fervently that they convince others that God is so difficult to please, it might not be worthwhile to even make an effort to do so. I’m not trying to join that crowd; I’m just reflecting on what my conversation with God affirmed for me. You might have a different understanding.
Many of us are familiar with the joke that if you ask two Jews a question, you’ll get three opinions. It’s a self-deprecating way of noting Jews’ propensity for considering multiple sides of a question. But the truth is that there are thousands of different ways of expressing Judaism, and our lives—particularly during this season—are an ongoing quest to find the way that is most meaningful for us.
But I do believe that God welcomes engagement with each of us. My conversation with God served to reinforce that conviction for me. But it also underscored for me that our relationship with God is a two-way street: if we want to feel and see signs of God’s presence in our life, then we have to make the effort to seek God.
I believe that there is significant beauty and power in us being gathered as a community, as we are this evening, joining our together in prayer and using the collective strength of our voices to affirm our commitment to working with God to make the world a better place. But Judaism also acknowledges that one can connect with God on one’s own time, on one’s own terms.
So, I’ll encourage each of you: if you’re not already doing so, find some time to have that conversation with God. I think you’ll find God to be a ready and willing listener. I think you’ll find the exercise interesting and worthwhile. And I pray that God will open the gates of understanding for each of us, so that we will find meaning and fulfillment as we enter this New Year.
 Beginning of traditional confession by the prayer leader for the High Holidays. This translation is found on p. 17 of Mishkan HaNefesh (New York: CCAR Press, 2013).
 Based on Blume, Judy. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
 Roedel, John. Hey God. Hey John. (Cheyenne, WY: John Roedel, 2018)
 My understanding of this idea comes from the podcast “Stuff You Should Know,” and their August 4, 2022 episode, “Thrill to the Stunning Bicameral Mind Hypothesis.”
 Genesis 18:25
 An interpretation of Isaiah 43:10, based on a midrash in Pesikta DeRav Kahana 12:6
 Cf. Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People.
 Attributed to Albert Einstein
 From a poem, “T’shuvah,” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, translated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
 See Genesis 8:21
 Aharon Zeitlin, “If You Look at the Stars and Yawn.”
 Isaiah 6:3
 A paraphrase of a quotation attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov.
 Based on Isaiah 11:9
 Thanks to Daniel W. Rasmus for this image.
 Isaiah 53:3
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
 Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon.