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God Training

We Reform Jews love to talk about God. We will argue heatedly in Shabbat morning study groups about God's role in the lives of our biblical ancestors. But whatever the Torah portion, someone will inevitably raise questions such as: Why could Abraham, Rebecca, and Moses encounter God but we cannot? Why is God's voice not heard in our own times?

We should not assume that Abraham, Rebecca, and Moses had a special line to God. Even our biblical ancestors needed help in recognizing God's presence in our lives. Consider the story of young Samuel in the house of Eli the priest (I Samuel 3:1-18). Samuel, apprenticed to the old priest Eli, hears a voice calling him. He thinks it's his mentor, until Eli, recognizing that it is God's voice, instructs Samuel to say: "Speak, God, for your servant is listening."

If even the great Samuel couldn't perceive God's presence, how can we much more limited human beings engage the Eternal One in conversation?

We can begin in the same way we converse with human beings--by learning God's name. Admittedly it's difficult, as the name God prefers (YHVH, Exodus 6:2-3) is unpronounceable! Fortunately, however, the Torah gives many other names for God, among them Elohim (God acting as Judge), Adonai (God as Compassionate One), El Shaddai (God Almighty or God the Nurturer), Shechina (The Presence), and Ha-Makom (The Place). Each name helps us experience God in a different way. Think of the people that know you by different names, names that reflect different aspects of your identity. The same is true for God.

Once we have gotten some practice in evoking varying aspects of God through the prism of different names, we can begin to experience God's work in nature--sunsets and sunrises, high mountains and shooting stars--as gifts especially intended for each one of us. We can acknowledge these gifts by invoking Birchot Ha-nehenin (Blessings for Things Enjoyed): Baruch atta Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, oseh ma'aseh v'reisheet. Baruch, "praised" or "blessed," has its root in the Hebrew word berech, knee. To bend the knee is to recognize God's power in the world--a power so overwhelming that it leads us instinctively to bow to it. And as soon as we have acknowledged God's great power, we immediately speak a word that closes the gap between God and ourselves: Atta, You. The God who created sunsets is as close as our ability to say "You" to that God--You who created sunsets and who shaped the mountains that we might gain inspiration from admiring them. Adonai, Eternal, is the word we offer when the text spells out the unpronounceable name of God, YHVH (Yod-heh-vav-heh in Hebrew), from the root heh-vav-heh, which means Being. The intimate Eloheinu balances the grand Baruch. Melech Ha-olam (Monarch of time and space) conveys all the physical images we know of power, grandeur, and splendor, reminding us that through God we can be in touch with invisible time and unfathomable space.

Once we have acknowledged God's presence in natural beauty, it will be easier to recognize God's presence in our daily experiences.

The moment of awakening in the morning is an opportunity to celebrate the return of our soul from its nighttime journeys (the Jewish understanding of the sources of our dreams), the daily reunion of soul and body. We can recite the Modeh Ani prayer, thanking the Holy One that we are alive: Modeh (for men)/Modah (for women) ani l'fanecha, melech chai v'kayam, she-hechezarta bee nishmatee b'chemlah, rabah emunatecha: I give thanks in Your presence, O living and enduring Monarch, that You have returned my soul to me with love; how great is Your faithfulness!

As we sit down to breakfast, we can remind ourselves of God's role in bringing forth the food that sustains us, and then say a Motzi over bread: Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz (Praise to the One who brings forth bread from the earth). For a meal without bread, we say, Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, she-ha-kol nih'yeh bid'varo (Praise to the One by whose word all things come into being).

If we spend the morning at home, we might choose to take on a task that is usually the responsibility of someone else in the household as a reminder that even menial chores can be imbued with holiness. Similar tasks were performed by the Temple priests in Jerusalem; in order to enable people to bring offerings to God, the priests would straighten the Temple furniture, cleanse its vessels, and take out the trash. And when we have finished our cleaning chores, we can elevate them with a prayer from Psalm 90:17: Veehee noam Adonai Eloheinu aleinu, umaaseh yadeinu kon'nah aleinu (May the pleasantness of the Eternal our God be upon us; establish for us the work of our hands).

Even the day's most annoying moments can be opportunities for connecting with God. Imagine that the people who jostle you on the bus or subway or tailgate you on the highway have inscribed on their foreheads the message that the High Priest wore, Kodesh L'Adonai, Holy to God. Ask yourself, "Where is the tzelem Elohim, the image of God, in this person? What can I learn from this person?" When you have answered these questions, you might consider saying this prayer for someone from whom you have learned: Baruch atta Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, she-natan mei-chochmato l'vasar va-dam (Praised are You, Eternal our God, who has given of Your wisdom to flesh and blood).

Work time offers yet another opportunity to do mitzvot--the actions God has requested of us. After all, work itself is a mitzvah (Exodus 20:9: "Six days shall you labor and do all your melacha"). In the Torah, the word melacha (work) is used to describe the labor that went into building the tabernacle in the wilderness. Our work is to build another sort of tabernacle, one in which we dwell from 9 to 5. During the course of our workday, we can take note of what we can learn from our colleagues, clients, employers or employees and offer the blessing mentioned above. When we become irritated with them, we can invoke a selection of God's Thirteen Attributes, praying that such attributes as patience and compassion are vouchsafed to us: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v'chanun, erech apayim v'rav chesed ve-emet (Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and loving God, slow to anger and great in love and truth). And when we feel we have acted improperly, engaging in one or more of the mitzvot lo taaseh, actions to resist (gossiping, lying, bearing a grudge, etc.), we can engage God in a prayer of our own, asking the Shechina to help us in our struggle to live righteously. "Help me to be stronger, God; help me manifest the image of You within me. Let me feel you guiding my words and actions."

There are many affirmative mitzvot (mitzvot aseh) we might engage in during the workday as well, such as asking forgiveness of someone we have wronged and offering to make amends. On our lunch break, we might visit a friend in the hospital or phone someone we haven't connected with in some time. Or, as a respite from work and mitzvah doing, we might take time to go outside and, in total silence, look at the trees, flowers, hills, sky--five minutes to start, then ten minutes, and eventually perhaps fifteen minutes. Practicing silence or spending time just looking at natural sights trains us to become vessels for the messages that may enter our minds from the God of the still, small voice. Practicing silence can also help us recognize that voice.

Lunchtime can be a time for learning as well. We can study the week's Torah portion, noting the verses that seem to jump out at us, letting them guide us as if they are gifts from God. During lunch, we might also choose to act on some of the mitzvot surrounding eating by reciting the blessings over food and avoiding non-kosher foods such as pork or shellfish. By eating free-range meat and poultry, organically grown produce, and fair-trade products, we, as Reform Jews, extend the definition of kashrut to avoid cruelty to animals and the oppression of workers.

The journey home from work is a wonderful time to take in the change from the morning to the afternoon sky, the gathering sunset, and recite the same prayer we offered (oseh ma'aseh v'reisheet) as we saw the sun rising. What has changed in us since we first offered that prayer today? we might ask. What have we learned from God's messengers?

In the evening, we can continue our Torah study with family or roommates. We can engage in the mitzvah of tzedakah by placing money in the household tzedakah box, and we can precede dinner with the appropriate blessing and conclude it with the birkat ha-mazon (the blessings after the meal) together as a family. And afterwards, we might go outside to look quietly at the landscape or the moon and stars.

At the close of our day, we can say the Shema: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad (Hear, Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One). We might pause to thank God for all we have learned from texts and individuals this day.

In countless ways we can bring ourselves into the presence of the Holy One. To sense God's response, we need to practice listening. Listening, when we study Torah or when we pray, for the insights that come into our minds. Listening, when we go out in nature, to hear the sounds that come out of the mountains, that are carried on the wind. Listening, when we smell the sea and watch the surges of the waves against the rocks; when the fragrance of flowers or snow or autumn leaves lifts us off the path; when a friend is telling us sad or joyful news and we hear the neshama, the soul-person, underneath the pouring words. Is it a wonder that the signature sentence of Jewish belief is the Shema: Listen, Israel, listen intently enough, often enough, and you will come to recognize when what you hear is the presence of God.

The responses to our prayers do not always come immediately. We need to remember what we have prayed for and be attentive. Suddenly our eye catches an employment ad in the newspaper--has it been there before? Why are we drawn to it now? We meet someone on the street, and the conversation opens up an area that had been much on our mind months ago. If we give ourselves the time to be silent, unexpected and stunning insights will trickle in. At such moments we too can say with the young Samuel, "Speak, God, for Your servant is listening."

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles campus, and the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism (URJ Press), which is a commentary on the CCAR's Pittsburgh Principles of 1999.