Archive for November, 2010

THANKSGIVING AND JOB

A few years ago, a Baptist from Texas confided he’d once been short on his rent. So he prayed for money someone owed him. A check arrived the next day. This proved that God—or more accurately, Jesus—responds to people’s prayers. After all, Matthew 21:22 states, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

I think checks arrive for other reasons. And I look at praying for things—and thanking God for them—differently. So this Thanksgiving weekend, let’s consider this in light of the Book of Job, about which I write in God’s Others.

HaSatan—the Adversary rather than the Devil of Christian and Muslim theology—makes a bet with God about Job, an Uzzite (not a Hebrew). Job is “wealthier than anyone in the East” and also “tam v’yashar,” blameless and upright. God calls him “my servant.”

Fuhgedaboudit, says HaSatan to God. Should Job lose what he has, You’ll see what he really thinks of You. The wager is on. God permits HaSatan to do anything but kill Job. So HaSatan takes away Job’s wealth, ten children and health (but not Mrs. Job).

Job is angry. He’s innocent! He wonders, as does the prophet Jeremiah, why good people often suffer while the wicked prosper. This dilemma helped produce the concept of heaven—good people suffering in this life but receiving their reward in the next. However, Job focuses on obtaining justice in this world. He challenges God to defend Himself knowing he can never bring God into court. Yet Job never turns away from God.

Ultimately, Job acknowledges that God’s ways are beyond human understanding. I agree, since God can’t be defined. (See my last post, “God Was in This Place,” 11-12-10.) Thus Job’s experience questions the orthodox assumption that checks arrive in the mail to reward the prayers of the faithful and the corollary that people who experience terrible losses are faithless and defiant of God.

So now you know why I never thanked God for letting me hit the home run that gave my class the fourth-grade punchball championship of P.S. 174. I’ve never believed I was rewarded with good hand-eye coordination and reasonable strength—or punished by not being another Mickey Mantle, my childhood baseball favorite.

That’s why I think of my favorite secular holiday not as Thanksgiving but “Thankfulgiving.” I’m thankful—appreciative—for what skills and intelligence I have and the people who’ve helped me along the way. (For an interesting discussion of skill enhanced by luck, read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

The Mishnah advises that while prayer cannot fix a broken bridge, it can mend a broken heart. Prayer as worship—thankfulness and appreciation rather than petition—enables us to connect with what is outside ourselves and with our inner strength, as well.

But I must give thanks to my youngest son, Aaron, for a great Thanksgiving dinner.

GOD WAS IN THIS PLACE

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, tells of Jacob leaving Isaac and Rebekah to avoid the wrath of his brother, Esau. Sleeping in “a certain place,” he dreams of a ladder—sulam in Hebrew, perhaps a stairway or even a ramp—with angels going up and others coming down. God stands over Jacob and promises him the land and numerous descendants. When Jacob wakes, he remarks, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). How often do we miss signs of God in our own lives?

Admittedly, I don’t know what God is. Maimonides (12th century) writes in The Guide for the Perplexed that we can only know what God is not. God is not corporeal; God has no head, no hands, no hunger for food. The God of Genesis Who makes clothes of skins for Adam and Eve—see “Adam & Eve: A Fashionista Fable,” 9-30-10—and speaks with Moses panim el panim (face to face) serves only to give limited human intelligence some sense of the unknown.

Perplexing, indeed. But it’s worth noting that as the biblical narrative progresses, God grows increasingly distant. Thus God is mentioned but plays no obvious role in the Book of Ruth. The Book of Esther makes no mention of God at all.

God’s slow but steady withdrawal suggests parents who spend much time with their children when they are small, begin to disengage as the kids reach adolescence so they can learn to make choices, and keep a proper—if occasionally frustrating—distance when they leave the nest. Only by taking responsibility can children become adults.

Yet what God and parents teach us stays with us. My father, Morris, died in 1983. My mother, Blanche, died in 1999. But I still have parents. Their memories and guidance live within me. Is God dead to us? People ask, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” Elie Weisel responds, “Where was man?”

I’m fascinated that many people with whom I study Torah and worship don’t “believe in God.” Perhaps their concept of God is just “different.” Maybe they see God as Maimonides’ indivisible, unknowable unity—the force of creation detectable in part through science. Or that indefinable something outside ourselves that transcends the rational and connects us all—our compelling call to morality and ethics. No worries. Judaism focuses less on what God is than on what God wants us to do.

That God may be closer than we think: In the love of parents for children. In friends’ devotion to friends. In sacrifices people make for others they don’t know—like those of emergency responders during 9/11. Moses tells the Israelites that Torah is not in the heavens or across the sea but within us. Perhaps it’s sufficient to encounter God in a smile, a comforting gesture, the “still small voice” that impels us to care for each other.

Brazen book plug: This week’s Torah portion also presents the difficult relationship between Jacob and one of God’s others, his uncle Laban. Chapter 5 of God’s Others, “Dissemblers & Provokers,” tells Laban’s story.

GOD BLESS AMERICA! AND THEN WHAT?

Posted Nov 5 2010 by in OUR WORLD with 6 Comments

I’m as patriotic as the next guy. Or gal. I served three years in the U.S. Army—as a volunteer. (Amazing how many patriots avoid military service.) I pay taxes without complaint. I vote. And I continually thank this country for provided a safe home and a world of opportunity to my family and millions of others. So I stand at attention and hold my hat or hand over my heart whenever the National Anthem is played. And I do it proudly.

But what is it with singing “God Bless America” (written by Irving Berlin) during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games?

I remember Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” on her TV show back in the early fifties. A response to the Cold War and anti-communist fervor (remember Sen. Joe McCarthy) in Washington? Maybe. But McCarthy’s witch-hunt disgraced himself—and the nation.

The Philadelphia Flyers hockey team adopted Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” back in 1969 as a good luck charm. Fine. For them. But isn’t the Star-Spangled Banner before each game enough for the rest of us? Note: I loved Lyle Lovett’s “Banner” before game four of the Giants-Rangers Series. No styling, no ego. Just straight-ahead and heartfelt.

Ever since 9/11, Major League Baseball has been intent on proving its patriotism. And on we fans proving ours. But being asked to stand again (well, I do need the stretch)—and remove our hats again—for one more “anthem” strikes me as excessive. Queen Gertrude in Hamlet offers, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Must real patriots wear the flag on their sleeves?

Another quote comes to mind. Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), while serving as Naval Commissioner, proposed: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” Something to think about—the part about being wrong. It can happen.

Carl Schurz (1829-1906), the first German-born U.S. Senator, provided a reflective take. “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” In politics, war or anything else in life, loyalty shouldn’t blind us to our mistakes. Or prevent us from correcting them. We boo the umpire. And we toss politicians out of office. The nation just did, whether or not the new political winds blow with or against you. The Constitution maintains our right to speak out. Moreover, it’s our duty to do so.

So while I’m tempted to remain seated during the next singing of “God Bless America” at a ballgame, I probably won’t. And if asked, I’ll take off my hat.

But honestly, love of country isn’t just about what we sing. It’s about what we do. So God, bless America by all means. Bless us, too, with the sense to act with integrity and humility.

And, with all due respect to Homer Simpson, let’s think about invoking a little less “USA! USA!” and “We’re number one!”