Again and again, in meeting with geyrim (candidates for conversion), b’nei mitzvah students, and many, many adult learners, the topic of God is a fraught one. “The God Talk,” as I have come to think of it, usually begins with reading a section of the Torah much like the one in this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo. Ki Tavo lists functions of God that seem unbelievable to most modern Jewish readers. Divine curses are tied with the exact observance of the commandments that affect crop yields, birth rates, climate change, and even plague. We read these verses with cognitive dissonance and say to ourselves, “well, that’s not the God I believe in.”
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of one of those curses mentioned in our sacred text, a plague ravaging the globe, but no one (at least no one of sound mind) is saying that COVID-19 is the result of our failure to follow the commandments. So, if God isn’t found in the curses, God must be found somewhere else.
“The God Talk” is much easier when we describe all of the things God isn’t. God isn’t the one who causes plagues. God isn’t the one who causes sickness and disease. God isn’t the one who allows bad things to happen to good people. This might lead us to a less active and powerful version of God. BUT, what most people discover is that once they strip away the parts of God that do not fit, the remaining image of God is one of comfort, conscience, and community.
When bad things happen to us, God can be the comforting presence that “sits” with us when we are distraught. When we are faced with two choices, God can be the conscience, the inner voice that guides us on the right path. When we are surrounded (physically or digitally) by the presence of our congregation, our family, and our friends, we might feel the awe-filled presence of God in our midst.
Our ancestors found utility in the kind of God who wrought vengeance on adversaries, who caused agricultural success, and economic prosperity. It’s okay that we’re different. It’s okay that our God concept today isn’t the exact same as that of our ancestors. The blessings and curses that parashat Ki Tavo lists can be easily remixed and reframed in a way that keeps the text relevant in 2020. Maybe God doesn’t cause the awful things to occur, but when they do, we know that God will still be with us. When we err, when we face calamity, and when we despair, we’re never alone.
These coming High Holy Days might feel a little off because of the physical distancing. But remember that as a community, we are always surrounded - physically or digitally - by one another. And when we might feel the acute pain of loneliness, we have God as the ever-present Source of Blessing and the Rock of Israel in our midst.
May this Shabbat be one of ever-increasing blessings. May we feel the blessing of rest, the blessing of peace, and the blessing of love from near and far.