“I don’t believe in God.” In my work with teenagers, it never fails that every year someone will say this to me and I love it!
I answer, “So tell me about the God you don’t believe in."
“I don’t believe there is some guy up in heaven with a big long beard pulling the strings."
"I believe that I have free will.”
And then I continue, “Well I don’t believe that there is a guy up in heaven pulling the strings either, so I guess that means I don’t believe in God, my entire life is a sham, and I quit!”
This is always met with a dropped jaw and a look of total confusion.
Words are a very powerful tool…we use them to create, just as God did in our own story. God said, "let there be light," and there was light.
We can also use words to destroy. The guy who coined the saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," never went to middle school!
Words are powerful but they can also get in the way, a stumbling block to dialogue and understanding. For decades, academic researchers have argued over the true number of different words the Inuit people have for snow. But what they all agree on is that the number of different words for snow is in the hundreds. Imagine hundreds of words for our one word.
If I was having a conversation with an Inuit person regarding our mutual belief in snow, we would both agree we believe but our understanding of snow and what we believe it is would be two very different things.
They may picture what surrounds them every day, snow as a tool for building or keeping food. And I think of the fact that I can drive two and a half hours to Big Bear, go skiing for the day, and be back on the beach in Santa Monica watching the sunset by dinner time.
The conversation doesn’t even have to be so extreme. Say I was having a conversation with someone from New York City about our belief in snow. We both believe, but maybe they are thinking about the beautiful white snow that turns to slush, dark grey and dirty, and makes getting to school or work an adventure; while I think about being in Palm Springs in December, taking the cable car up Mount San Jacinto in the morning, building snowmen with my children, and looking forward to an afternoon by the pool, sipping a cool beverage under a warm winter sun.
The same word - Snow - but two very different understandings.
The same can be said about the word God. Whether it is science, humanity, or nature we all believe in something. Yet so often we struggle with naming that belief. One could call all of those beliefs -- God, God as science, God as the relationship between people, God as nature, and be absolutely and completely authentically Jewish in doing so.
It is that struggle with the divine, with the idea of God which makes us who we are as a people. We are the children of Israel, B'nei Yisrael, meaning the ones who struggle with the divine.
Tomorrow we will read in Torah, “Jacob was left alone. And an ish wrestled with him until the break of dawn….Then the Ish said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking."
But Jacob answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me…Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with beings divine and have prevailed.”
So when we question and wrestle and struggle with our beliefs, we are doing exactly what it means to be Jewish. May we always continue to challenge ourselves, seeking our answers together as true children of Israel.