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.”
God died last month
God died last month.
The newspapers barely reported it. No politician offered a eulogy. There was no radio broadcast of a moment’s silence. The subject did not come up over dinner. God died last month and we barely noticed.
How is it possible that God could die? Who could kill God so callously and get away with it? To understand what happened to God last month, you need to know everything that happened to God since the beginning. You need to hear about God’s life.
It was after the Exodus that the Israelites began to see how vulnerable God was. They had been redeemed from Egypt. They had crossed the Sea of Reeds. They had received the Ten Commandments from a thunderstorm.
Moses, Aaron, and seventy elders ascended the mountain once more to ratify their covenant with that God Almighty. When they reached the summit, they were shocked by what they saw.
Under God’s feet were building bricks like sapphire, as blue as the sky itself. Those feet were trapped. Those beautiful bricks bound them. The elders asked what had happened. God replied: “As long as you were enslaved, I was enslaved too. As long as you built bricks from clay, I built bricks from clouds. As long as you were in pain, I was suffering too.”
Of course, not all of God could be imprisoned. The infinite God transcends all space. But there is a part of God that lives with us and in us. A part of God labours when we toil. Cries when we cry. Hurts when we hurt.
The Israelites continued to catch glimpses of God’s frailty throughout their relationship. God had promised Jacob at the outset: “I will go myself with you to Egypt, and I myself will bring you back.”
It wasn’t just a promise of solidarity. It was a sad admission that, when the Israelites were refugees, God would be in exile too. When the Babylonia came to displace them and hold them in captivity, God travelled with the Israelites to Babylon. God sat with them in the synagogues. God was weeping by the river banks too.
Of course, not all of God could be exiled. The infinite God transcends all space. But there is a part of God that lives with us and in us. A part of God leaves when we leave. Cries when we cry. Hurts when we hurt.
God’s sympathy was not confined to the biblical age of miracles and prophecies. God stayed with us through history, even when we thought we had been abandoned. Yes, even in the concentration camps. God was there.
Elie Wiesel survived the Nazis and came to tell us what he had seen. He saw a child strung up by the guards, dangling. The child was left there for hours, dying in slow agony. The camp inmates had to stare him in the face with his still-red tongue and eyes not yet glazed.
“Where is God now? Where is He?” someone behind him asked. “Where is God now?”
And Wiesel whispered inside his heart: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on these gallows…”
God died there in Auschwitz. Of course, not all of God could be killed. The infinite God transcends all time. But there is a part of God that lives with us and in us. A part of God leaves when we leave. Cries when we cry. Hurts when we hurt. Dies when we die.
God has died with us many times. One hundred thousand sacred sparks have been extinguished in the UK this year alone. But God does not die in statistics on spreadsheets. God dies with one person at a time when one story is snubbed out too early in an unspeakable injustice. That is how God dies.
And now you know how it was possible for God to die last month. And now you need to ask why.
God died on 9th January at his home in Cardiff. He was 24 years old. He had been in police custody because someone suspected he had breached the peace. We are still not sure what that means. He was released without charge.
When his aunt picked up from the police station, he was covered in wounds and bruises. She says he didn’t have them when he was taken to jail.
52 police officers had contact with him in the 24 hours that he was held in Cardiff police station. None of them saw anything suspicious. The police are running toxicology reports and investigating themselves. They are looking at the CCTV footage but so far they have found no misconduct by officers and no use of excessive force.
The police have refused to release the footage. They say we will never see it.
We may never know how God died or why. But we know that God died last month.
And he was a black man named Mohamud Hassan. And he had a life that was worth living. And he should not be dead now.
And now you know how it was possible for God to die last month.
And now that you know that God has died, you are a witness to the crime.
And now that you are a witness, you will have to testify.
You are summoned before the Only Judge to give your testimony about why he died.
Black lives matter.
We are not our past mistakes.
We are not our past mistakes.
Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.
Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day. She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband.
One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”
Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”
“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”
From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.
That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways.
As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us.
When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations.
Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.
That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state.
Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.
God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.
Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.
At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.
Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”
But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,” except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.
At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,” even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”
But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.
When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.
And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.
Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.
Our mistakes do not define us.
We are not our past mistakes.
I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.
 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a
 Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b
 Psalms 104:35
 Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a
 Ezekiel 3:11
 Deuteronomy 30
 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2
 Jeremiah 3:14
 Psalms 90:3
 Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b
We are asked to believe in something impossible
We are asked to believe in something impossible.
We are asked to suspend everything we know and accept that a God of fire and cloud descended on the place where the Israelites were camped.
In the day, God came down to earth like a pillar of cloud, encompassing the tents where people lived. At night, God rose up like a pillar of fire, showing people the way.
The movements of these clouds or the fiery appearance would signal that the people were to either break up and move, or make camp, as the case might be.
Ever since the Torah was first canonised, people have exercised a healthy scepticism about what these words might mean. We have rational doubts about whether pillars of fire and cloud could come out of nowhere.
Even in the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, one of the earliest translations of the Torah, this text is altered to say that what they say was “like a vision of fire.” Here, as elsewhere, the Targum tries to keep people from taking the words of the Torah overly literally. It is not, the Targum suggests, that a real pillar of fire descended from the sky, but that people had visions of something that looked like fire. This is more digestible.
Commenting on this problem, the medieval Spanish philosopher Maimonides tells us that such ideas “come from dreams and visions.” He argues that “the imaginative faculty achieves so great a perfection of action that it sees the thing as if it were outside.” The Israelites only saw the fire and cloud in their minds, but their vision was so powerful that it was as if they could see it out in the real world.
Where Maimonides can’t explain such phenomena, he tells us that they are metaphors. When the Torah says that God wrote the Torah by hand, it doesn’t really mean that God has hands. When the Torah says that God walked about in the Garden of Eden, it doesn’t really mean that God has feet. It’s using language we understand to explain something we cannot.
The idea that this is all a metaphor is powerful. After all, if we want to understand God or Divine Revelation, we must accept that we’re thinking about something way beyond our comprehension. None of us are really enlightened enough to see God or to understand what God wants of us. These descriptions are just tentative imaginations to tell us about something too profound and complicated to be described.
In modern times, historical criticism has gone even further to rationalise what is written in this parashah. The pillars of cloud and fire weren’t visions. They weren’t even metaphors. For some historians, these were probably just burning wood pyres and incense sticks, guiding people through the desert.
I can completely see why people would interpret the Torah this way. It fits better with our experience of the world and keeps us from straying into fundamentalism. We need to keep critical distance so we can remember that this was a book written by men, who were fallible. That is especially important in a community like ours, where we know that the sense of justice we get from our own consciences is far more important than the rules written in an ancient book.
But, in a way, I also find the efforts to rationalise stories like these quite disappointing. By dispelling myths as just visions or metaphors or the hocus-pocus of priestly magicians, we do these texts a disservice. The Torah is not a book of scientific or historical truth. It is a book of spiritual truth. It is trying to tell us something much deeper about the world than science or history ever can. We can’t judge the claims of the Torah, then, on the same terms as we would a physicist’s estimate of how old the universe is. It is talking about truth of a wholly different kind.
For a while, in my teens, I was something of an atheist. I was suspicious of all religious stories, felt the Tanakh to be riddled with contradictions, and faith in God to be a bit ridiculous. At that age, I didn’t realise that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally, that the contradictions were questions waiting to be explored, or the powerful role that God would come to play in my own life.
Reflecting on the views I once had, I know why I dismissed stories like these so readily. A God of cloud and fire who descends over wandering people in the desert is, of course, impossible. It’s just that now, I have much more room in my heart for impossible things.
Everything about the story is impossible. A God of cloud and fire who wrenches slaves out of Egypt, rains down plagues and parts the seas. Unfathomable.
A nomadic people stranded in the desert approach a mountain and hear out of it thunder and lightning, declare that it is their God, the Eternal One, and that they should have no other gods. Completely unrealistic.
A slave people, who had never known anything but the bitterness of toil and struggle, are told that they will all be priestly people, all have regular complete days of rest, all strive to live in equality and justice with one another. Unbelievable.
An immigrant people with no home, dispersed and lost, hear it promised that every foreigner will be treated with the same decency and equality as everyone else. They hear that nobody would ever hurt people for being different again. Inconceivable.
A people who had known nothing but hatred and turned their anger on each other heard that One True Creator of the Universe loved them wholeheartedly and would cherish them as a treasured people. They heard that it was their task on earth to live up to the highest standards of morality and lead the world as a living example of what an ethical life could be. Absolutely, completely impossible.
And yet. And yet somehow, for thousands of years, we have held on to this idea that we can be beacons of justice, exemplars of love and heralds of a better world. Somehow, despite everything our people has suffered, we still have a sense that a world where people treat each other with dignity is within our reach.
We are asked to believe in something impossible, but all that cloud and fire does not matter half as much as the mission that comes out of it. The mission of the Jews, our sacred task on earth to sculpt it in God’s image, may be impossible, but impossible things are worth believing in. As a people, we are called upon to make the impossible possible. And we will succeed.
I gave this sermon on Saturday 2nd June 2018 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community for Parashat Bhaalotcha. Partly, I was trying to work out in my own head the answer to the question of whether a Jew in the 21st Century must believe in G?d; and, if so, what that meant. In the lunchtime discussion, I found many congregants had similar concerns. Many of us felt that we believed in G?d, but struggled to find the language to describe what that meant. I went away feeling that, in a sense, the questions were more important than the answers.
 Num 9:15
 Tur haAroch 9:15:1
 Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:36