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God is Winking

I mentioned last week that I’ve been watching my schedule closely lately. As we begin to say l’hitraot and I make my way to Cincinnati, for so many excellent, exciting, and—yes—bittersweet reasons, this is a time to pay attention to the calendar.


With only a few more Shabbatot before I wrap things up, I am using last week’s sermon, tonight's, and next week's to reflect on core concepts I have tried to convey over the years. My teacher, Rabbi Lenny Kravitz, always said that we rabbis keep preaching the same sermon repeatedly. Looking back at sermons I have delivered from this bima, there is not one single sermon, but several themes that stand out, which I want to place front of mind.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we are taught that the world stands upon three things: Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. Last week, I spoke about the meaning of Torah and the giant question mark that defines Jewish discourse. It's on each of us to continue the Jewish conversation that has existed over generations and across geography. This week, I return to a theme I brought up my first year here, the idea of God Winks and prayer. Then, next week, in the spirit of G’milut Chasadim, we'll return to the dynamic duality of Justice and Care.

 

Let us focus on the word Avodah. In modern Hebrew, Avodah means work or labor. When we speak of Israel’s political Labor party, we call it Avodah. Avodah also means service. In cities around the US, recent college graduates can sign up for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps, serving in a similar capacity as AmeriCorps or Peace Corps volunteers. And, at its root, Avodah is about worship. Throughout the book of Leviticus, the book of Torah from which we are currently reading, we hear about all the various ways that the priests and other Israelites are to observe sacrifices, offerings, and other religious practices, all under the banner of Avodah.


So when we read that the world stands upon three things—Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim—we talk about three pillars of Jewish practice: study, prayer, and loving-kindness.


To understand Avodah, we must discuss how we hold worship services today. And if we want to understand worship today, we need to talk about prayer. If we are to have any concept of meaningful prayer, we need to talk about God. (Saying this, I have Rabbi Everett Gendler z’’l whispering conspiratorially in my ear, “Oh my! A Reform rabbi who talks about God? Scandalous.”)

 

At my first Rosh Hashanah service in this community, I delivered a sermon describing the idea of God Winks. I struggle to say what or who God is, but I can tell you about times when God showed up. I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when God felt real and present. These moments are God Winks. Perhaps you’ve have had a similar moment?


They are the experiences that feel too good to be true, the times where everything seemingly snaps into focus, where you feel both a part of yourself and outside yourself, wholly engrossed in the moment, sure of yourself and the world around you. Awe floods in, and Gratitude shortly after that. God winks at us during the grand heights of life—at the birth of a child and when we walk them to a chuppah. And, God Winks at us when we least expect it—when we run into a friend we have not seen for a while but were just speaking about, or when the fortune cookie reads a little too accurate.


Some may explain these moments away as coincidences. The critic says that when I give thanks for a God Wink, I worship at the altar of confirmation bias. But these moments are too real and too grand to be explained away by the shrug of a shoulder and the three-word proclamation of "Eh, just a coincidence."


But we ascribe meaning to coincidence. The Buddhists describe God Winks as auspicious coincidences. William James described God Winks as the noetic quality of life. Carl Jung called it synchronicity. And Martin Buber, I-Thou. It is the conviction sensed in the present tense that something profound is happening, that a truth is being whispered to you. God Winks are our burning bushes and Sinai experiences serendipitously coming our way.


While we cannot will God to show up for us, we can put ourselves in situations that promote a spiritual way of being. I have come to believe that there are three scenarios in which we find ourselves that are primed for God Wink moments: The first is what we are doing here right now, being in community, in a sanctuary, at an appointed time like Shabbat; the second is when God shows up in our relationships; and the third is when we find God in nature (something easy to do when we live where we live).


So first, let us consider communal prayer.


The objective for anyone who walks into the sanctuary, and the mandate for us as clergy, is to cultivate the God Winks through prayer. We do this best when we think about how keva and kavanah play together anytime we craft ritual. Keva is the fixed stuff of prayer—the siddur and our seats, the time of services, and the Torah reading. Kavanah means intention; it is the Presence we bring to our prayer. For Shabbat and any other service to work, there is the text and the reader, the musical notes on the staff and the musician, the keva and the kavanah.


And when you read, really read, our siddur, you begin to see how our prayers are collections of words gathered over the generations that capture the God Winks of those who came before us, prayers that I hope then resonate in our lives as well. Human beings authored our prayers who also tapped into a sense of Awe and responded with words they memorialized in our prayerbook, which we re-enact anytime we speak those prayers aloud again. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes,


“The sense for the ‘miracles which are daily with us,’ the sense for the ‘continual marvels,’ is the source of prayer. There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living…. This [after all] is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.”[1] 


Heschel sets a high bar for the regular worshiper. Yet, think of a moment on a Shabbat or holiday here at Hevreh, in which you suddenly felt a wave of emotion come over you. Something happened in the service: you found a particular phrase in the siddur you had never noticed before, and the way a particular tune was sung struck a certain chord. We set the scene for God Winks when we gather in this sanctuary, exposed to the natural world through those windows. At the oneg tonight and at other points upcoming, I would love to hear your God Winks stories whose setting is this sanctuary.


Yet, as much as I want to make the case for the synagogue as the core of our spiritual experiences, I know we have God Winks elsewhere. When I first spoke about God Winks, I told the following story:[2] 


Mavis Jackson lived in Anaheim, California. Each Sunday, while running errands, she would drive past the Crystal Cathedral, a huge Catholic church on a beautiful campus. The building is all sharp angles of glass, a contemporary California take on a classic, majestic design. Each time Mavis passed, she thought to herself that she would go there for a service sometime.


One Sunday morning, she finally did. She dressed in her Sunday finest and thought, "Today is the day."


When she arrived at the church, she was early. She sat in the middle of a row in the middle of the sanctuary, taking in the massive neo-gothic walls of glass. The aisles filled in with other worshipers. She nodded hello but did not converse much with anyone other than a few pleasantries. The service was lovely and spoke to that longing she had been feeling for quite a while. As the service came to its conclusion, she stood up to leave. She was waiting for the aisle to clear when a young woman said hello to her. Mavis asked the woman if she was from the area as well.


“No,” the woman replied, “I’m visiting from the midwest.” She then offered, “I’m actually here on a mission to find my birth mother.” There was a pause between the two of them.

"I know how you must feel," Mavis replied. "A long time ago, I had to give up a little girl for adoption." There was another pause. The young woman asked Mavis if she remembered her daughter's birthday. Mavis cautiously replied with the day she had given birth. The young woman and she simultaneously drew the invisible lines of connection. The fate of the moment was visible to both of them: Mavis was her birth mother.


God shows up in significant, communal moments and in our relationships. When those coincidences occur, God is winking at us, enticing us to pay attention.


I recall another rabbi telling me about being at a b'nai mitzvah rehearsal. It was customary in his congregation for whole families to attend the final rehearsal the Thursday before the b'nai mitzvah date. His congregation was also so large that often, students shared b'nai mitzvah services.


As the rehearsal ends, the two grandfathers from the different families are speaking with one another. They came from two different cities to celebrate with their own grandchildren, who have no relationship with one another other than sharing their b'nai mitzvah date.

One grandfather looks at the other and says, "Your voice sounds so familiar." The grandfathers introduced themselves to one another, shaking hands. When they tell one another their names, they drop the handshake, stunned. One man opens his arms, and they hug.


It ends up these two men did business together for years, always over the phone, and they had never met in person. Their phone relationship made both of them successes professionally.


These chance encounters like Mavis and her daughter or these two men are spiritual flags, waving at us. We may not understand the meaning behind these sorts of moments. Still, when auspicious coincidences come our way, we know deep down that they are important. Time slows, the air pulsates, and like Jacob, we say, “Achein yesh Adonai ba-maqom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati; Surely God is in this place, and I, I did not know it.”[3] 


Importantly, as much as we hope to find God winking at us in community and in our relationships, like Jacob, sometimes God shows up when we are on our own, in meditation, in personal prayer, in nature.


There is a debate about the cornerstone prayers in any given service. What is the high point of any Shabbat service? Some say it is the Sh’ma, the watchword of our faith. Others might argue that it is the entirety of the t’filah (page 164 and following) since tradition prescribes that set of blessings for us three times daily. If I had to choose among these, I would highlight the t’filah but narrow it down further. The most crucial moment in services is the silent prayer. Because out of the kavanah, the intention, we set in that moment, out of the words we pray silently, we give “voice” to our hopes and desires. That is the moment in prayer not for God to wink at us, but for us to wink at God.


In the Talmud the rabbis record the private, personal prayers with which they would conclude the T’filah:[4] 


“May it be Your will, Eternal our God, that You station us in a lighted corner and not in a darkened corner, and do not let our hearts become faint nor our eyes dim," said one.

 

Another, now memorialized as the final reading in our siddur in the t’filah as silent prayer, “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit… Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your mitzvot… May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart find favor before You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.”


In these quieter moments in the synagogue, we invite God's Presence in. We wink at God.

And we can do that outside these walls, too. There is no better place to find God winks than when we are in nature.


My introduction to the Berkshires was working for an outdoor travel company headquartered in Williamstown. I was the company's photographer, touring with teens around New England on biking, hiking, and kayaking trips. It was a great summer job for a college student, and it was when I fell in love with the Berkshires. I recall one five-day backpacking trip in the Adirondacks. On our last day, we climbed Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York State.


As the teens scrambled to the top, a forest ranger met them at the summit, congratulating them on their accomplishment. He gave them an orientation to the summit, pointing out things about Mount Marcy and it surroundings. As some of the teens were getting a bit rowdy, this ranger respectfully quieted them down. "People come to the top of a mountain for all sorts of reasons," he told them, "Some for personal accomplishment, but others to encounter the sacred." He encouraged the teens to take a few minutes alone and just be. Call it God; call it something greater than ourselves; call it the source that unifies all atoms flowing in, through, and around us; being on top of a mountain enables you hold fast to the vastness of the world. Another God wink.


Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav put into prayer the experience of being on that summit, teaching that one should say the following when out in nature,

O God, grant me the ability to be alone;

may it be my custom to go outdoors each day

among the trees and grass - among all growing things

and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,

to talk with the One to whom I belong.

May I express there everything in my heart,

and may all the foliage of the field -

all grasses, trees, and plants -

awake at my coming,

to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer

so that my prayer and speech are made whole

through the life and spirit of all growing things,

which are made as one by their transcendent Source.

May I then pour out the words of my heart

before your Presence like water, O Adonai,

and lift up my hands to You in worship,

on my behalf, and that of my children!

Abraham Joshuah Heschel knew Rebbe Nachman’s teachings well. “Since there is a need for daily wonder,” Heschel wrote, “there is a need for daily worship.” When we encounter that sense of Awe, when we know that God is winking at us, we have to respond with: Wow, and Thank You.


Avodah, worship and prayer, is the second of three cornerstones upon which the world stands. We pray sometimes to help facilitate those God Wink moments, and sometimes we pray in response.


 So, tonight I pray that we might keep ourselves open to that sense of wonder around us, the Awe confirming those God Winks that communicate to us that we often stand on Holy Ground.


Shabbat Shalom.


[1] God in Search of Man, 49.

[2] Adapted from SQuire Rushnell, When God Winks, 4–5.

[3] Genesis 28:16.

[4] BT B’rakhot 17a.

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