Seeing the Face of God Everywhere as We Mourn

We cannot be expected to fulfill obligations when loss is still fresh and the feelings are so intense. We allow ourselves to feel shock, grief, confusion, anger, and/or sadness. We allow room for our hearts and souls.

The past several weeks have been painful – violence throughout the world, vicious attacks killing Israeli civilians, the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. The terror in Israel this week hits close to home: One of the victims was a beloved teacher of the grandchild of a CBJ congregant. Another was an 18 year old American boy in the youth group USY who was bringing food to Israeli troops. It’s too much – the world seems to be spiraling out of control. We are sad, angry, fearful, overwhelmed – all of those things synthesized together.

So what are we do? Honestly, wisdom feels shallow and analysis feels trite. Perhaps the only place to begin is to create space for our emotions and pain.

In a blog in The Times of Israel, Rabbi David Hoffman uses a Jewish law connected to mourning to teach that emotional honesty is our starting point. Rabbi Hoffman teaches that the time between a loved one’s death and funeral – known in Hebrew at aninut – is a time there are no religious obligations. One is not required to say prayers or any of the requirements of daily Jewish life. Why? Our pain is too deep to go about life as usual. We need all of our energy to attend to the immediate needs of our families and to honor of the dead.

The insight underlying this law is that when loss occurs, we allow ourselves to pause and feel. We cannot be expected to fulfill obligations when loss is still fresh and the feelings are so intense. We allow ourselves to feel shock, grief, confusion, anger, and/or sadness. We allow room for our hearts and souls.

And as we begin to process these events, we turn to our sacred stories looking for guidance. In this morning’s portion, Vayeitze, there is the famous story of Jacob fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath, after colluding with his mother to deceive Isaac in order to receive his blessing of leadership in place of Esau. Away from home for the first time, he has an extraordinary dream. He sees angels going up and down a ladder, going back and forth from heaven to earth. When Jacob sees this amazing sight, and after hearing God’s message, he says: “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know.”

What does Jacob mean? How could he not know that God was everywhere? Rabbi David Kalb interprets this declaration as teaching that before this moment, Jacob only perceived God in certain, limited places and circumstance. This is the moment that Jacob’s sense of God expands. Previously Jacob was described as yoshev ohalim – dwelling in tents. For the commentator Rashi, this is a metaphor for studying Torah. He stayed inside, in the purity and safety of the holy books. But now he ventures outside and realizes God can dwell in the real world – anywhere and everywhere. God is not limited to the synagogue, House of Study, holidays, ritualistic settings and life-cycle events; God is everywhere – in the gym, the kitchen, the bedroom, the workplace. When God is everywhere, we reach out to those who suffer – be it France, Israel or anywhere in the world.

Up until this moment, Jacob didn’t realize that God needed to be present in his relationship and actions regarding his brother. He could deceive, lie and cheat for his advantage – because for him, God wasn’t around most places to see. But now he understands that God presence extends everywhere. The seeds are being sown for the statement that will come in next week’s portion, when he encounters his brother and says, “To see your face is to see the face of God.”

These past several months, I have taught you from Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book, Not in God’s Name. Rabbi Sacks argues that our world is defined by religious forces that see anyone who disagrees with them as “Other” who can be killed in the name of truth. Theirs is a religion which refuses to see the divinity in those hold a different religious mindset. His analysis was prescient. The events of the past few weeks have shown how widespread is the dangerous phenomena of fundamentalist Islam that views all who disagree as targets of murder and mayhem. He understands that this will remain as piece of our world.

In a powerful column this week, David Brooks summarized Rabbi Sacks’ arguments that extremist religion fosters a pathological dualism – a mentality that divides the world between those who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad. The result has been the religious violence that had gone on for some time now with devastating intensity and cruelty. That’s what we saw in Paris last week.

Sacks argues that we need military weapons to win the war against fanatics like ISIS, but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace. Rabbi Sacks argues that we need to reach out to those who are not extremist and find shared religious language, which sees God in the face of every human.  Jacob is our guide in this response. Jacob, who comes to understand that God is everywhere and with everyone; and that the brother he saw as enemy was in fact a reflection of Divinity, teaches us that we can see the Divine in the face of those who are different.

The terrorist has so obscured their divinity in their hateful acts, all we can do is oppose them through strength. But we must be careful not to extend that truth into a broad characterization of every Muslim. It is just not true. We met Imam Antelpi who this week has been speaking out against violence done in the name of Islam or under any guise. The painful events of the past weeks have lead many to deepen a sense of Other – that has been a piece of the rhetoric in America when we talk about refugees and Muslims.  Or the events of the past weeks can lead us back to our sacred text and challenge ourselves to see God’s face in strangers we might otherwise label as dangerous – but truly is not dangerous.

Our shared faith with Christians and Muslims demands respect of fellow human. Ours is a tradition that has always shown concern for the struggles of the stranger and those forced to wander. From Abraham and Sarah and their open tent to the call of the Torah to “love him [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In our holy texts, God appears in the voice of the stranger. God transcends the particulars of our personal attachments. To forget this message is to abandon a core aspect of our mission as a people.

Listen to David Brooks’ analysis: “Sacks’s great contribution is to point out that the answer to religious violence is probably going to be

found within religion itself…It may seem strange that in this century of technology, peace will be found within these ancient texts. But as Sacks points out, Abraham had no empire, no miracles and no army – just a different example of how to believe, think and live. The religious heritage of being a blessing, caring for the stranger and person in need, the pursuit of justice and peace help us envision and create a world that is radically different than our current reality.

So today, let’s create space to acknowledge our shock, despair and sadness. Let’s resist the urge to vilify those refugees seeking a peaceful place for their children – in the context of maintaining our safety. Let’s grapple with our justified fears of extremist religion and violent acts of terror – synthesizing the need for self defense with care to avoid demonizing entire religious peoples. Let’s resist the urge to viscerally act from a place of fear and allow our faith to inspire us to envision long-term solutions based upon connecting with and supporting those with whom we could potentially join together with to create a different world. Let’s lift up prayer to comfort those who are suffering and for light to begin to pierce the darkness. Shabbat Shalom.