When we are children, we have a child’s view of God. A big bearded man in the sky with a benevolent smile, a beard and sandals. Maybe a maternal godhead, embracing us.
We imagine God as our idealised parent, fulfilling all our needs, giving punishments and rewards, guiding us to do right. We see the world as children because we have no other reference point.
Then, we become teenagers, and our worldview shifts. Suddenly, we are able to question authority, push boundaries, and assert our own independence.
We go through growth spurts, physically and emotionally. We close the gap in height with our parents so that we can see over their shoulders. They are no longer demigods, but imperfect human beings that we can challenge.
At this point, many of us give up on God. The childlike view we once had cannot hold, because the view we had of our parents has altered too. We realise that, if we can challenge authority, we can push back against the ultimate force we had imagined too.
I fulfilled the stereotype of a rebellious teenage atheist. I rejected the sky-daddy and all the nonsense of religion. This was a pretty lacklustre rebellion to my parents, who were themselves Marxist atheists.
I don’t remember the moment I stopped believing, or when I started again. But when I came back to faith, the beliefs I held were not the same as when I had been a child. I had to reconstruct God.
I took snippets from Jewish tradition. I listened attentively to my friends who were Quaker, Baptist, Muslim, Sikh, and Catholic, finding the parts that resonated. I reimagined what it would mean to believe in God if the Divine Parent surrounded by clouds no longer existed.
I realised that many others had engaged in the same thoughts too. All the while, when grown-ups had been talking about God, they hadn’t believed in the primary school version either. They had also gone through that process of maturing, and their ideas had developed with them.
It turns out that the God that atheists don’t believe in, the religious don’t believe in either.
This week is the Israelites’ coming of age.
Throughout Genesis, we only knew the God of stories. God created the world; God made people and gave them special purpose; God gave out punishments for wrongdoing and rewarded the good.
Now, we find ourselves in a situation in which we must rebel. We enter the Book of Exodus, where the Israelites are enslaved and forced to do hard labour. They are beaten and abused. Meanwhile, all around them, the Egyptian empire and the social order on which it is built are crumbling. We cannot believe in their gods, and we cannot find our own.
Our hero, Moses, sees through the nonsense. He stands up against his father’s power in the royal palace. He beats a slaver to death. He breaks away from the only regime he has known and runs into exile.
In the years that Moses ran away, he had to give up on all his old beliefs. The fantasies he’d held about his family. The dreams he’d had about what his own life meant.
He married a woman of a different tribe, Tzipporah, and worked for her father, Yitro. They were Kenites, and Yitro was a Midianite priest. Perhaps Moses could just have substituted his old beliefs for the Midianite ways. He would have simply worshipped a new pantheon of gods and taken on different customs.
Instead, Moses is forced to reimagine God altogether.
While tending his flocks, Moses meets his Creator in a thicket on a mountain. He sees a bush on fire, but not burning, that calls out to him and demands he remove his shoes.
Could this be one of the gods of Midian or Egypt? Could it be one of the spirits that inhabited the ancient world?
Moses must know. He asks “who are you?”
The voice from the burning bush replies: “אהיה אשר אהיה.” I will be what I will be.
This God does not have a name. It is not one of the idols that the nations worship. It is not something that can be held or controlled. This God will be what it will be. This God is the sum total of all that will ever exist.
When I teach bnei mitzvah children portions, I try to get them to understand what they are saying, so I teach them the roots of Hebrew words. They learn what is going on in each word of their parashah.
In Hebrew, every word has a root: three letters that hold all the possible meanings. Words like kaddish (the prayer for the dead), kiddush (blessing the sabbath), and kiddushin (getting married) all have the same root: kaf-dalet-shin. The root gives us all the words to do with holiness and making things special.
In nearly every parashah, we get to the unpronounceable name of God. The students nearly always try to pronounce it, but find it quite impossible.
We don’t say the word as it appears, but substitute it with “Adonai” (my Ruler) or “Hashem” (the name). That way the name stays sacred, or kadosh.
And then I teach them the root of this ineffable name. Hashem is a composite of three words: היה (what was); הוה (what is) and יהיה (what will be). God’s root is existence. God is the thing that always exists, and from which all existence comes.
When God says “I will be what I will be,” it means that God is everything. God is existence itself. God is whatever it means for something to actually exist.
This is the mature view of God. It is not a fairytale or a Santa Claus. It is a way of understanding all of reality.
This God will not do what it is told, or sort out your problems for you.
That’s why this God comes with a demand. “Go back to Egypt. Get over there and bring the people out of that land. Do whatever you can, bring everyone with you, and get yourselves free.”
When we are children, we have a child’s view of God. One who gives out punishments and rewards. One like an ideal parent.
Now, we are faced with the good of adulthood. The one who is the foundation of all existence. The one who gives all life meaning. The one who says: “I am not going to free you by magic. You will have to start freeing yourself.”
Friends, the message of this week’s homily is: hold on to your grudges.
Throughout your life, people will hurt you. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, and you must hold on tight to that hurt. Make sure you bottle it up and let it fester until you are ready to seek revenge.
That’s where great drama always comes from. Thanks to grudges, we were treated to eight seasons of Desperate Housewives.
At the end of your life, you may wonder what legacy to pass on to your children. Perhaps you have considered wealth or sentimental items or tidbits of wisdom. Can I suggest that you add to that list: give your children a grudge to bear.
The best kinds of grudges are intergenerational. It’s never enough to be resentful on your own. Share it with your loved ones.
If you can keep a grudge going until nobody remembers what the original broiges was about, you will have really succeeded. Without ancient grudges, we would never have had Romeo & Juliet. And look how well that turned out.
So remember every way in which you were wronged and make sure to even the score.
That’s what King David did. At the end of his life, reflecting on his mortal life, and preparing for the hereafter, he called his son Solomon near to him. He began by offering up some advice. “Act like a man,” David instructed.
From personal experience, I can tell you that whenever somebody has told me to man up, what follows is always emotionally healthy. And this occasion is no exception.
David told Solomon: “Remember what Joab, son of Zeruiah, did to me. Remember how he engaged in bloodthirsty mutiny. Do what you like with him, but do not let his grey head go down to the grave in peace.”
And David wasn’t done. He had other grudges to pass on. “Solomon,” he urged. “Remember Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. I said I wouldn’t kill him. But I didn’t say you wouldn’t kill him. So do what you like with him, but do not let his grey head go down to the grave in peace.”
Like a good Jewish boy, Solomon made sure his reign over Israel began with a killing spree.
Let King David be a role model to you all. If someone has insulted you during the course of your life, make sure you remember their names. If you can’t get retribution yourself, make sure your bitterness lives on beyond the grave.
Now, you might think, “of course, King David has big gripes to pass on. He’s a king, after all. He had real enemies. All of my slights feel petty in comparison.” Don’t worry. If misery is good enough for the elites, it’s good enough for the masses, too. It’s time we took a stand for equal distribution of resentment. Anyone can carry hate.
Just look at Jacob. Jacob was blessed with thirteen children. And couldn’t stand any of them. Throughout their lives, he made sure they all knew who his favourites were. First, Joseph. Then Benjamin.
At the end of his life, Jacob did what every good Jew ought to do. He settled old scores and told everyone what he really thought of them. He brought his boys round to make sure they could hear his views.
“Gather round, my sons, and listen to your father.”
“Reuben,” he says, “you will never succeed at anything.”
“Simeon and Levi, you are too angry to deal in anything but violence.”
“Issachar, you’re an ass. Dan, you’re a snake. Gad, people will trample all over you.”
Then, just to top it off, he turns to Joseph and says: “Joseph, you are really beautiful. You’ve done great things.”
That’s how you do it. That’s how you end your life, making sure the people close to you knew how little you thought of them.
But, for some reason, Joseph’s brothers did not love their blessings. They had hoped for a slightly more conciliatory deathbed scene.
So, they got together and talked to Joseph. They said: “Um, Joseph, you might not have heard this, but as dad lay dying, he begged you to forgive us. He said, now that you’re in charge of Egypt, you shouldn’t hurt us and you should let us have food here.”
And Joseph said: “Dad didn’t say that, did he?”
“No. Dad didn’t say that.”
If Joseph had learned from history and all the good examples you’ve heard, Joseph would have known that the best thing to do is hold onto his grudges and get revenge on his siblings while they were weakest.
But, in a shocking turn of events, Joseph decides not to. He says: “I’m not in the place of God. I’m not here to keep score and dole out punishment. Whatever has happened, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.”
And, with just a few words, Joseph can annul decades of mistrust. He can undo his father’s callous favouritism. He can bind his siblings back together as a family.
And, with those words, Joseph seemingly corrects every sibling rivalry of his family. From Cain and Able to Abraham and Lot to Jacob and Esau. All of a sudden, an intergenerational curse is lifted. They can heal.
Joseph had every reason to hold onto his grudges. He was sold into slavery. His brothers pretended he was dead. He was wrongly imprisoned. He was betrayed by his friends. Of everyone who had held their grudges, Joseph probably had been through the worst.
But he decided to forgive. He concluded the origin story of the Jewish people with love and kindness.
The Baal haTurim, a great Jewish lawmaker of the 14th Century, said that Joseph should stand as an example to us all. Say out loud what is hurting you rather than holding onto your pain. And harbour no desire for revenge.”
So, OK, I lied. The moral of this sermon wasn’t that grudges are good. Sure, they are natural, but they’re not helpful or healthy.
I don’t really think you should pass on your bitterness to your descendants. Tempting, but not constructive.
In fact, for a lot of this, I was being sarcastic. I hope you won’t hold it against me.