Growing up in the home of a prominent rabbi, one of the ironies was that my dad was not very comfortable talking about God. He inspired generations of congregants and community members alike with his erudition, his interest in applying great secular philosophers’ teachings with the passion and wisdom of the Prophets and Sages of Israel. His leadership in the Jewish and interfaith communities was legendary, and his commitment to Civil Rights when it was not yet embraced by the religious community was inspiring.
Yet, if you wanted to have a conversation with dad about God, he was quiet. When I pushed him in that matter, he shared a story: a young man, raised in an observant Jewish home went off to college where he was exposed to the great philosophers and points of view on the governance of the Cosmos that he had never learned in his home or synagogue. He confronted his father with his newfound contradictory teachings, and as his father fatigued of that line of questioning, he responded: “this conversation is all very nice, but it is time for us to go to synagogue for the evening prayers”. That story was my father’s, even if it came from a Midrash (a rabbinic story legend designed to teach a lesson and or moral).
The irony was that one of my dad’s great contributions to the Conservative Movement of Judaism in the Bay Area was that his was one of the few, if not the only, synagogues in the area that guaranteed a daily minyan, a morning afternoon and evening prayer service, 7 days a week, and dad rarely missed; he made sure it happened, all the time.
My own connection with God was different; in my growing years, I was less enamored of the formal times with God, synagogue services on Shabbat and holidays (in fact, as a child I had severe “allergies” to them…I was totally turned off), yet from as early as I could remember, I had an intimate relationship with God. I would talk with God frequently, in my own way, asking for help in dealing with tensions I faced in a home with a dad who had little patience for childhood (since his childhood was ended by coming over on a boat from the Old World at age 12 and having to help support his family while going to school).
I went to rabbinical school in response to the inspiration of my work as an older teen with Young Judaea, which gave children a friendlier relationship with Judaism than what I had experienced at Sunday School, and when force fed synagogue services.
It was in my learning of the meaning of Jewish prayer in particular that I came to know that the God of my childhood (and I didn’t think of the Man in the Gray Beard Model of God, but simply/complexly an ongoing Presence to turn to and be with) was the same as the God of Judaism, I.e. found in the Torah and the Siddur (prayer book).
In all my years in the rabbinate, I have dedicated myself to enabling the God of everyday life, in all the informal settings, to be more accessible in the formal structures, when we gather as community in synagogue. I am as respectful of how people experience God in those informal ways, appreciating little moments of awareness and appreciation for what goes well, and with whom, as I am for how they do so in the official designated sanctuaries, such as B’nai Israel.
My name for God in all settings (and I have identified God as such long before Harry Potter applied it differently!) is U KNOW HU. That name invites you/U to see God’s presence in otherwise ordinary moments in the day: who you know, i.e. HU U KNOW, with respect to you who know, i.e. U HU KNOW.
It is also topical this month in the Torah to think in these terms, when we watch the story of Joseph and his brothers, so outraged at his seemingly selfish and self-indulgent behavior, that they rid themselves of him when the opportunity arises, only to be the agents that enable Joseph to get to Egypt to be the right person at the right time to save Egypt and all surrounding areas from 7 years of famine and provide a future home away from home for Israel, and laying the groundwork for the Exodus that shaped the Jewish people for all time. These Torah stories are perfectly “timed” to coincide with our celebration of Chanukah and how God works behind the scenes, if and when we notice.
As I move forward in my journey through life, I am eager to increasingly draw the connection between the God of the synagogue, of Torah and formal prayer with the same Power, i.e. the ongoing presence of U KNOW HU. That will be the case in and with all the groups I work: the Men’s and Women’s Groups in Napa as well as WineSpirit, connecting wine and spirituality.
My ultimate goal is to enable us all, in whatever setting, to understand that harnessing that Power means we are never alone, and more importantly, it opens us up to new and renewed awe for one another, the unique times in our day and the timing of moments we often call coincidences. Hopefully such openness will add enhanced meaning to all that we do when we are engaged in the formal visits with U KNOW HU that I found so intimidating and even irrelevant, when I was growing up in a rabbinic home with a dad who would rather pray than muse about the impact of God’s Presence in everyday life.