Sign In Forgot Password

Rosh HaShanah 5783: Doubt and Questioning in Psalm 27

Monday, September 26, 2022 - 1 Tishrei, 5783

Psalm 27 - Translation by Dr. Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, BCC

To David

  1. God is my light and my help; whom should I fear?

The Holy One is the strength of my life;

Whom should I dread?

  1. When mean-spirited people draw me near to slander me,

It is these foes and enemies

Who stumble and fall.

  1. Should an army surround me, my heart would have no fear.

Should war come upon me,

I would still feel secure.

  1. Only one thing I ask of God, only this do I seek:

To dwell in the house of the Holy One

All the days of my life,

To gaze upon the beauty of God,

And to pay attention in God’s sanctuary.

  1. The Holy one will shelter me in God’s sukkah;

On a bad day the Holy One

Will hide me in the shelter of God’s tent,

Raise me up safely on a rock.

  1. Now is my head high above enemies surrounding me.

I sacrifice in God’s tent with shouts of joy,

Singing and chanting a song to God.

  1. God, hear my voice when I call;

Be gracious to me, answer me.

  1. To You my heart says: “seek my face.”

O God, I seek Your face.

  1. Do not hide Your face from me;

Do not turn Your nose from Your servant.

You have always been my help so do not forsake me;

Do not abandon me, my God, my saving power

  1. Even if my father and mother abandoned me,

The Holy One would take me in

  1. Teach me Your ways, O God,

And guide me on a level path

Because of my watchful enemies.

  1. Do not hand me over to the will of my foes,

For false witnesses and unjust accusers

Have appeared against me, breathing violence.

  1. If only I could believe I will yet see

The Holy One’s goodness while I am alive!

  1. Hope in the Holy One,

Be strong inside, and let your heart be brave.

Hope in the Holy One!

--

Psalm 27, the Psalm we recite twice a day throughout the High Holy Day season, shifts back and forth between faith and doubt, between a God who helps me defeat my enemies and a God whom I seek but cannot find. I dread and fear no one; my enemies stumble and fall, and yet, I ask God for mercy. I sacrifice in God’s tent with shouts of joy, and yet, I worry that God will hide from me or thrust me aside in anger. In the last couple of lines of the Psalm, I remind myself that I am strong and brave, and yet, I must tell myself twice to hope in Adonai. If I could only believe with certainty that I will see God’s goodness in my lifetime, one call for hope would be enough - but no, today, I need two calls for confirmation! In this season of the High Holy Days, when we both praise God’s wonders and question our fate in the year to come, we want to hope in God, and still, we cannot avoid a twinge of doubt that our prayers and actions these ten days will influence God’s will at all. 

Each person in this room has a different idea about God’s existence, and chances are, each of our ideas about God’s existence is different than it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. We are a tradition that welcomes questioning, even doubt, of our Creator and Sustainer. And yet, every Jewish person is obligated to the same Torah, the same basic set of mitzvot, the same commandments, regardless of our beliefs or previous practice. In Judaism, action comes before faith - at Sinai, we proclaim, Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and [then,] we will listen. Yes, faith is a motivator towards action - why pray to and follow the orders of a being in whom we don’t believe?! But in the Jewish tradition, we often rely more on action as a motivator towards faith - taking part in this congregation’s continual celebrations of one another demonstrates proof of a living God. At the end of the day, there are still people who do Jewish and who practice mitzvot to the best of their abilities for reasons that transcend or even sidestep faith - because it gives their lives purpose and order or because such practice is what their ancestors would have wanted. 

Periods of time - even close to a lifetime - of doubt in God’s presence can offer us insights into the wonders of God’s commands and creations. Such doubt can help us to more deeply question who and what we love in this physical world, what motivates us to do the good (and not-so-good) we choose to do. When we question God, we practice questioning ourselves in general; we give ourselves permission to reshape our worldview. If we can question the existence of God Godself, then perhaps we can question our political views, our theories of the world around us, and our opinions of those people we have previously felt we cannot accept. And when we come back to unwavering faith in God, as we will explore next week, that history of doubt will give us the language to better understand what we have missed, why we have returned.   

Our traditional liturgy builds questioning and doubt of God into its very structure. Every weekday, three times a day, sandwiched in between the praise and thanks we bestow upon God even on Shabbat, we request a whole lot from God. We ask for wisdom and understanding, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, healing, success, Jewish unity, justice, punishment of wrongdoers, praise of the righteous, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the coming of the messiah, the restoration of our Holy Temple, peace, and for God to accept this litany of requests once we have finished. Why ask God for any of these things multiple times a day, if not to express our frustration with a God who does not always do what we ask? When we challenge God, when we demand more from God, we acknowledge that our relationship with God must be a partnership. We channel Avram when he stands up to God and proclaims: Ha-shofeit kol-ha-aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?! - Will the judge of the earth not do justice?! 

With our demands, we develop a vision for what justice and righteousness must look like in our world. With each demand, we remind ourselves of how we can help God in affecting the world in which we live. Through our efforts at comforting friends and family and for many of us, through our every-day occupations, we can be directly involved in the healing addressed by our daily requests to God. Through participation in Jewish organizations, we can be involved in the Jewish unity for which we beg. Through activism and community education, we develop wisdom, understanding, and success in those around us, all topics intrinsic in our prayers to God. When we question whether God will complete the tasks we ask, we leave space for personal motivation; just in case God cannot or will not do it alone, we need to step up!

At certain times, halakhah even dictates that we entirely ignore conversation with God. Within the overwhelming joy of one’s wedding night, one is not obligated to say the Sh’ma, as the loving relationship of the couple supersedes even loving relationship with God. Right after a loved one has died, one is exempt from all positive commandments, as no mourner can be expected to think about the Divine when dealing with both their personal grief and all of the arrangements that must take place in the aftermath of a relative’s death. In a house of mourning, no one present may say the words in the Full Kaddish, titkabel tzlotkhon u-va-ut’khon…: God, may you accept the prayers and requests of all the House of Israel. In a house in which people present may ask for their grief to subside or for the deceased to come back to life, we know God will not listen to our prayers. Moments for pause in active relationship with God are built into our Jewish tradition. 

So, too, moments of pause in our own relationships with God may be helpful in developing that relationship further. When we’re angry, frustrated at, or terrified of the Divine, we *can* spend time in meditation rather than in praise of God. We *can* take a week off of synagogue, or even, spend some time questioning God’s existence entirely. And yet, a word of caution: if you choose to actively take a break from your relationship with God, stay involved with Jewish community throughout your process of doubt and questioning; surround yourself with people who can inspire you to come back, even if you choose to stay home from formal services for a set amount of time. Ultimately, time spent focused on the God you do not believe in will help you better define the God you do believe in and know to be present in your world. 

For those who do not question or are not questioning God’s presence, part of our role is welcoming back those who have lost that relationship and are slowly returning. When it has been a while since we have seen a member of our community, we ask about their well-being and show our enthusiasm for their presence. Part of our role is explaining and demonstrating why we spend time here, why we speak to God in the ways that we do, and how community can help foster our individual relationships with the Omnipresent. When we welcome questioning within our community, we help to establish the reputation and reality of a God who invites learning and challenge.

And for those of us who find ourselves somewhere in the middle, between steadfast faith and pause from our relationship with God, we have endless opportunities to look within our tradition to find the language to challenge God. If the text itself frustrates us, we can show up to 929 learning and proclaim: Sacrifices, yuck! Why bother? If today’s world order inspires anger, sadness, or despair, we can channel the poet who yells at God in Psalm 94: Shall the seat of injustice be Your partner, that frames mischief by statute?! That sense of God’s absence does not end with Psalm 94, but rather, exists all over the book of Psalms. In fact, I encourage you to flip through all 150 tehillim and find the shade of distress that resonates with you when you need to know that you are not alone; I guarantee, your feelings towards God and this world are reflected even in our holiest texts. 

Do not let your anger with or disbelief of God take you away from your Judaism; even without attention to God, we are here with the resources of a supportive community. We are here with rituals and traditions that promote life in body, soul, and spirit beyond the theological. Even if you need to take a break from the complexities of belief in God, God will be here throughout and when you return.

Throughout many of the lives of those in this room, we have gone through periods of time that are too painful, overwhelming, or chaotic to think about God with all of our hearts and souls at every moment of the day. Even through it all, by stepping into this room today, we are at least giving teshuvah, the process of returning to God and ourselves, a chance. We have taken a leap of faith simply by engaging in this prayer service that, liturgically, throws every theology and every method of begging at God in the hopes that at least one of them will stick. Today, we embrace the possibility that we “may yet see God’s goodness while we are alive,” - lirot b’tuv Adonai b’eretz hayim - acknowledging that we may still have hesitations about this whole God figure. Today - ha-yom, regardless of our personal theologies, we ask ourselves to give God and ourselves the benefit of the doubt in the New Year: 

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳ חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳׃

Hope in Adonai

Be strong inside and let your heart be brave.

Hope in Adonai!

לשנה טובה ומתוקה!

Fri, January 27 2023 5 Shevat 5783