A Friendship with God
Yom Kippur, 5775
I recently published a book about Yom Kippur called Food for the Spirit. The book riffs on a series of stories that happen to me while I was driving my old taxi around town. So now that I have written this book my wife told me, “No more taxi stories on Yom Kippur night. Now it is time for something new.”
She is absolutely right. No more taxi stories. Besides I don’t need to talk about the taxi because I just got a new vehicle. A dear friend just gave me a gift. A 1965 Chevy van that is painted to look exactly like the van from Scooby Doo. In fact the van was actually used by the producers of the Scooby Doo movie to promote the movie.
Those of you who remember the show will know that this van was called “The Mystery Mobile.” My plan is to keep the same colors and keep the name “The Mystery Mobile.” I just want to add a simple tag line to the exterior, “Don’t let synagogue be a mystery.”
Even for the most spiritual amongst us, God is a great mystery. By definition God is the Unknowable. What do we know about God? Only that we must worship Him.
But on the other hand, synagogue shouldn’t be a mystery. Synagogue should be our closest friend, our second home and our city of refuge.
Even though God is Unknowable -- what is possible is to know what it means to have a relationship with God.
One of the things that we should be trying to do on Yom Kippur is to understand what it means to have a real relationship with Hashem. Like any successful relationship, this relationship should be grounded in ongoing communication and commitment. Most importantly, this relationship should be grounded in reality and not mystery.
This past week I was contacted by a production studio that produces television reality shows. They wanted to know if I was interested in working with them on a new reality show where along with other clergy they would parachute me into a situation in which a person was undergoing a major crisis and they would sit back and watch while along with the other clergy we would magically solve this person’s problems.
As flattering as it is to be called by a television studio and to be told that there may be an interest in people watching me dispense advice, I also knew right away that this whole idea was antithetical to what I believe about religion.
Religion is primarily not about waving a wand, shaking one’s body in a certain direction, saying a prayer three times with extra fervor and then praying that God make our problems go away. True religion is not about pretending that bad things won’t happen to you if you are religious.
True religion is about something else. It is about having a deep and meaningful relationship with God; it is about having a friendship with our Maker that will add richness to every aspect of our life. It is about having such a strong friendship with God that I know that He will always be there for me so that even though “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me” (Psalm 23).
The whole year we have this relationship and we express it through acts of devotion to Hashem and acts of kindness to others in service of Hashem. So we pray, we give charity, and we perform the ritual commandments. These acts are supposed to help us feel the presence of God as a constant force and source in our life. In return we draw nourishment from our relationship with Hashem.
This is how we live the whole year. But on Yom Kippur we yearn for an even closer connection to Hashem.
If true religion is about us having a relationship with God, then Kol Nidre night is, like a “date night.” Yom Kippur is about cementing our friendship with God and working on our relationship. On Yom Kippur we are spending quality time with our Maker.
The whole year we have this friendship with God. But it is distant. There are distractions. Life gets in the way of our most important relationship.
But on Yom Kippur, God promises us that if we spend some quality time with Him, then He will reveal to us just a little bit more about what He is about. He will allow us to come even closer to His embrace and feel even more of His nourishment.
The central part of the Yom Kippur service is where the Kohen Gadol enters into the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies; the secret chamber within the holy temple. No one is ever allowed into this place. Only the Kohen Gadol. But we are also there with the Kohen Gadol because the Kohen Gadol is praying on our behalf when he enters into the Holy of Holies.
The whole year the prophet tells us to “seek out Hashem when He can be found” (Isaiah 55:6). But on Yom Kippur, God invites us in to see Him. On Yom Kippur God does not wait for us to look for Him; He looks for us. As the prophet says: “Solu, solu. Pave a road, pave a road. Clear a path. Lift up the obstacle from My people’s path” (Isaiah 57:14).
Ever since Rosh Chodesh Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we have added psalm 27 to our prayers. The theme of this psalm is that we desperately want to take refuge in our friendship with God. “Though a battle would rise against me, in This I trust.” “Indeed He will hide me in His shelter on the day of evil; He will shelter me in the (be-seter ohaloh), shelter of His tent.”
The Torah tells us in the book of Devarim, “On that day I will hide my face from you, ve-anokhi haster astir panai bayom ha-hu” (31:18).
This verse is usually understood to be a punishment; i.e. that God will hide from us when we sin.
But the great R. Nachman of Breslov said that this verse is actually a comforting promise. His words have become a very popular Chasidic song because they have great depth to them. Rebbe Nachman taught: “Va-afilu be-hastara she btokh hahastarah nimtzah Hashem yisoboruch, And even in the hidden that is within the hidden, Hashem can be found.”
Rebbe Nachman’s teaching is based upon a Talmudic text (Chagigah, 5b) that tells us that God has a secret hidden chamber that is called Mistarim. According to the Talmud, God retreats to this chamber, which is a chamber within a chamber in order to cry.
The rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, cited this text when he was trying to inspire his loyal followers during the most difficult days of the Shoah. He told them that no matter how dark the world is we are not alone in this world. God is crying with us in His inner chamber.
When we have a genuine relationship with God we will never be alone. When we are in the darkest days, our relationship with God will not make our problems go away. That is too simplistic and superficial. But our relationship with God will help us navigate the world. He will be our shelter and our strength.
The more we invest in our relationship with God and the more we work on our friendship with Him—through good deeds, prayers, Torah study, and charity, the more we will feel His presence and the more we will be able to take shelter in His tent.
This year a group of us in our shul took it upon ourselves to study the Daf Yomi. This means that we studied a full page of the Talmud every day. This is a hard project. It takes a great deal of time. Sometimes the texts are fun and very contemporary. On the other hand, other times the texts are difficult and highly esoteric. I want to share with you that I have found it to be the most invigorating activity of my rabbinate. The constant study and devotion to study has allowed me to feel so close to Hashem. Every day when I immerse myself in this page of Talmud it is like I am spending time with best friend. I get that this undertaking to study the daf yomi is not for everyone. But each of us should find a task and project that we can do every day in order to better our relationship with God.
If we invest in the relationship, the rewards are enormous. A true friendship with God means He will always be there to provide us with the shelter of His tent. We will never be alone.
The flip side of knowing that God will be with us in the darkest days is also knowing that God will be with us in the best of days. When we are in the sweetest of times, He will make everything sweeter; He will give us the insight to help us recognize that we have the strength to continue.
On the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read the words from the Torah: “Guard My laws and My decrees…so that you may live by them, va-chai bahem” (Vayikra 18: 5).
The key words in this reading are “so that you may live by them.”
Yom Kippur is about cementing our relationship with God. Yom Kippur is about spending quality time with Hashem. Our friendship with God is in some ways like every other friendship we have. What we put into it is what we will get out of it. The more we put into our relationship with God; the more we will feel at peace with ourselves. The more alive we will be.
Remember what it was like to feel alive. To be alive is to truly feel awake and have the spirit and the energy and the joy running through your blood. This is what a relationship with God will give us. It will help us be alive and enrich every aspect of our life.
This past summer I had the great fortune to go camping in North Carolina with 50 kids from our shul. We were having the time of our life. And then it rained. It didn’t just rain, it poured. Everything was covered in mud. Suddenly everyone was in a bad mood. When you are camping there isn’t much to do in the rain. All the kids were loaded on a bus. We had been planning on going to watch the wild horses run, but now we were waiting for it to stop raining so we could return to the muddy tents. And then I got on the bus and asked the kids the following question: We could sleep here tonight in the mud…or we could change our plans and go sleep in a hotel that has an indoor water park. I never heard such unbridled joy in my life as the kids got so energized and excited by that idea.
That energy in that moment was what it means to be alive. I feel that energy on Yom Kippur. This is what Yom Kippur allows us to do. It allows us to reenergize our relationship with God: to live with Him.
This week I went to spend some time with a very spiritual man who is now on hospice. This man who was once a giant in so many areas is now fading. He is now in his final days and is being tended to by nurses around the clock. I said to him, “What can I do for you?” He said, “I am happy.” I tried asking him the same question again and all he would say is, “I am happy.”
How can he be happy? He is dying.
This man is happy because he has a relationship with Hashem and the Torah. Every time I visited him he would say to me, “Tell me a teaching from the daily Talmud study.” And when I would share the teaching he would light up.
To be happy on your deathbed is a great blessing.
On Yom Kippur Hashem invites our representative, the Kohen Gadol, into the secret chamber, the kodesh kodashim. The Kohen Gadol is our representative and on our behalf he has achieved a deeper relationship with the Mysterium Tremendum. It is for this reason that when he leaves the Kodesh Kodashim he throws a party. He has rekindled his relationship with the One. And that is a reason to celebrate. This is what we are striving for on Yom Kippur—we are trying to rekindle and reenergize our relationship with God, and with our selves. This Yom Kippur let’s spend quality time with Hashem and if we do so He promises us that our relationship with Hashem –our friendship with our Maker--will be even deeper and richer.
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