The quest for a spiritual life: 

Finding meaning in the God conversation

(After everyone was seated, I said nothing and went to the Ark.  I opened it up and stood there in silence for about 20 seconds.  People stood up pretty quickly – no signals from the pulpit, they did it on their own initiative.  I then closed the ark and started my sermon).

How many of you stood?

How many of you stood out of respect for the Torah, the community, God? Other reasons?

There is a teaching in Judaism:  “Know before whom you stand.”  

I came here tonight to explore and to learn about before whom I stand... Why do I stand...? How do I give voice to that which is beyond voice but is deeply within?

The prayer book (mahzor) that I'm holding calls that which is beyond description, God. It calls the impulse to stand before mystery, God. It calls that which is both myself and larger than myself, God.  The very word itself is problematic.  In many ways it has become an impediment in our quest to relate to all that which is beyond human comprehension.

 What is the place of my life in something larger? What is the place of something larger in my life? How do I talk about it?  The language in the prayer book of an omnipotent and omniscient God does not speak to me…I am looking to find my own compelling language for that which we feel.

The prayer book is not an answer book – it was the way that our ancestors expressed themselves when they stood before the mysterious, the incomprehensible that which instilled awe and wonder in them.

A decade ago I took my first trip into the unknown world of Darfuri refugee camps.  On that trip and every subsequent one, one book has always gone with me – Who is Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  In it are his reflections and insights into the question: “How should human beings, who are created in the likeness of God live? What way of living is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of life?”

Please sit back and listen to this story. “Where is God?  God is in the beginning. In the first red tomato,/And in the tiny hands of a baby.  Where is God? God is in the end. In the last bite of birthday cake/ In the last wave good-bye, and in the last years of life. Where is God?  God is in the way people come together.  In the sharing of a morning/ And in the Band- Aid fix up after a fall.  And in morning hugs and goodnight kisses.  Where is God? God is in the world.  In birdchirp, frogsong and chattering squirrels/ And the fly caught in the spider’s web.  In caterpillars chewing daisies/ And in worms turning leaves into earth.  Where is God?  God is everywhere. God is wherever we look.” ( Where is God by Lawrence and Karen Kushner)

How many of you would read that to your children/grandchildren?

How many of you find meaning in that story?

How many of you feel uncomfortable with the story and what you think I might be talking about tonight?

On this Kol Nidre, on this fast day, on this Day of Atonement in which we look inward – it is a time to go to a somewhat uncomfortable place and grapple with what I call the spiritual part of our lives or with the meaning of God in our lives.  I am not about to offer proof of God tonight.  I am not about to tell you why should believe in God.  I am not about to try and convince you that believing in God will resolve your existential challenges, and I am not about to try and refute people like Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.

Tonight, I want us to take off our rational, logical, intellectual, our left brain glasses and to try to connect to the child which still resides in all of us.  I ask that you take a leap of faith and of emotion with me in a journey to a place of intuition, feeling and creative discovery and openness. Tonight I want to start a conversation that I hope will be continued in a variety of ways and a multitude of places.  I ask that you make this journey with me in as open a way as you possibly can.  

Taking that kind of journey should not be that alien to most of you.  We do it all the time.  We  know so well that we do a lot of things that are not rational.  When someone tells me that Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto touched their soul, is that a rational explanation of the music?  Most people cannot explain the details of a composition and all the intricacies of a crescendo, but we know when we are moved.   When people take in the beauty of a Chagall painting and talk about how it impacted them at a very deep level, they are not providing a rational explanation of why it touched them.  We value art but few of us can really discuss the subtleties and the various strokes that went into the creation of a masterpiece.  Most of you have experienced love in your life.  When I meet with couples getting married, I often ask what it is that they love about the other.  I get very lovely and insightful answers – which are generally a list of the qualities that the other person possesses, how the other makes them feel, and what they like to do together.  If we really are going to be rational and intellectually rigorous, is that a proof of love?

I believe that appreciating a great musical work, a masterful art piece or loving someone involves accepting that these experiences are much more than the sum of their parts, much more.   

What if I said tonight, let’s just read the Kol Nidre and Avenu Malcenu in English – many of you would be quite unhappy.  We know that many people come to services around the world tonight to hear a Cantor chant the Kol Nidre.  My guess is that they do not care about the words, but rather the power of the music – its haunting, stirring, deeply emotional melody that seems to go right into our hearts and souls.  

So tonight is for everyone, those who believe in God, and for the atheists or agnostics or humanists in our midst - and I respect all of you.  All of us feel deeply about many things beyond rational explanation.   Perhaps a better and more honest description is that there are a lot of people who have never really explored God, have never taken the time to get beyond a very burdened word, and have never really delved into the concept of what does God really mean?  They might say, why do we need a God, whose existence we cannot prove, to experience life deeply?  I think what we have lost in the God journey is an understanding of the world we had when we were children.  I think that we often used the rational part of our minds to dismiss God – because of an inability to be open to what God might mean to us as adults.  We often let God get in the way of our prayer/ our meditations/our reflections/ our spiritual yearnings.  It is easy to criticize this prayer book or any because it speaks of an all powerful God that many of us cannot relate to and we find the whole relationship something that means nothing to us.   I think when we do that, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, to our tradition and to what I would call our conscience, our soul, our inner core.

This powerful poem from a woman who grew up in a traditional home in Israel provides insight into this notion:

“From time to time I pray. I don’t understand the words of prayer.
One who understands the words can’t say them.
So generations have opened their thick prayerbooks
and with love have blotted out the meaning of each word.”
Rivka Miriam/Rabbi Steven Sager


“One who understands the words can’t say them.”  What in the world is she getting at?  I think that she is trying to help us to see that the prayer book is not a textbook; it not a great work of non-fiction.  The prayer book is a work of  poetry, designed to stimulate that part of us – that feeling part, which allows us to see ourselves as one part of a larger picture, to appreciate that which is transcendent and inspires awe.  I think she is saying that by overanalyzing each and every word, we run the risk of destroying all the meaning.  

Originally there was no need for prayer books.  People lived out in nature and, even after they settled into shelters, they kept going out into the mountains or forest or desert and experienced that which we call spiritual.  They knew how to sit and stand in silence.  They could not scientifically explain the stars and the galaxies, but they could appreciate them.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “humankind will not perish for lack of information but may perish for lack of appreciation.”  Has our lack of spiritual development cut us off from our most basic instincts and eroded our memory of how human beings experienced the universe in primitive times?

Our ancestors were not as sheltered or as closed off as we are.  They could much more easily travel into a world of the mysterious and the unknown – a world that we modern, rational, technological beings have some difficulty in encountering. Have we lost something as we seemingly evolved – something so precious, something indescribable, something that transcends time and space?

Yet our synagogues and rabbis are often reticent about God-talk.  Perhaps in our reluctance to talk about the spiritual and to create spiritual experiences and opportunities to reflect upon them,  we have lost lots of people.

Listen to their voices:  “In my synagogue there was no sense of spirituality….I learned a lot about activism but nothing about the sacred….In public school I was educated, in Hebrew school I learned how to read Hebrew and some basic things but I don’t know what it means and  we never talked about the things that really matter in life: finding meaning, what is a soul, the power of blessings, finding ways to truly appreciate all that is miraculous in life.   I did not find any of this until I started practicing Buddhism (Note, I think Buddhism and many other forms of meditation are terrific. However, have we devoted ourselves to them and not explored where spiritual practices are within Judaism?)…I always wanted to talk about God and what that concept means and all, but I got no reaction from my parents and their friends when I tried to explore the whole subject with them.”

Have we taken the God out of the Jewish or synagogue experience because of our own insecurities and judgments about the subject? Have we made God- talk into some kind of disease?  Or it our discomfort in wrestling with God as did Jacob and the fork of the Jabbok River when after a long night of wresting and grappling he said:  “God was in this Place and I, I did not know it.”

As I was thinking about this sermon and going through a lot of angst about how to talk about something which inherently transcends language– I wondered why I was doing this to myself, and  I also wondered why am I taking you on this journey? Most people are so set in their beliefs or in their alienation from God this is not a subject that they want to hear tonight.  I realized I am doing it because it is of paramount importance for us to be honest and open about the Transcendent, the Divine, that which is incomprehensible, that which some call God. Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic took a great risk when he, as the president, said it in 1994 in Philadelphia: “Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.”


It was many years ago.  Close friends of ours in the Bay Area had a wonderful nine-year-old son that died.  I flew up to be with them and to officiate at the funeral.  In the middle of the night, as the boy’s father and I sat there talking and crying…he asked me that dreaded question: “What kind of God would take my son?”  I sat for a long time…thinking about my response.  Finally, I said to him:  “The God I believe in is sitting here and weeping with us right now.”  Let me say a bit more, I do not believe in a God that acts in the world, I believe in a God that inspires and empowers.  I believe in a God that challenges us to be our best.  I believe in a God that stirs our conscience and stimulates our soul.  I believe in a God that believes that human beings are really sacred beings who can make life an endeavor that is more than just eating, working and sleeping. Can I prove it to you? Impossible.  

I believe in a God who provides me with the potential to find in myself to truly become a humanist – one who works diligently to bring out the humane in oneself and others.

What we are really talking about tonight is much more than God, it is the nurturing of our souls.  For our bodies, we go to the gym; for our emotions, we go to a therapist; for our soul, for our conscience, we need to go on a spiritual journey that can be anchored in Judaism.  All too many Jews have found that journey in other places.  I believe it is to found in our tradition with its incredible teachings about values and sanctifying life.  If we can just let go for a few moments, we might even find it in a Shabbat service or in the prayer book.

Come with me on a journey through a most familiar prayer – just sit back and take it in.

The English we read does not in any way do justice to the magic of the Hebrew. “We praise you, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this season.”  

Baruch:  Let me reach deep inside myself to find the greatest gratitude that I can to offer a blessing.  Let me stand fully in this moment, that I am here, that I am alive to appreciate the sacredness of this night.  Let me overflow with emotions and child-like joy that allows me to really say this is a moment that deserves a blessing and that I am part of that blessing.   (Overflowing and blessing have the same root as we learn in the Talmudic expression - Mayim Syetbarchu –  waters which are overflowing.)

Ata:  You, this is a relationship and personal.  I am not approaching you as though I am petitioning a King, but we are in a dialogue like Martin Buber best described as the I-thou relationship, a relationship which does not objectify or make anyone into an it:  “I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man's life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience. When I can really say you, maybe then I can really say I.” 

God’s Name:  I really don’t know what  to call you.  I don’t really know much about you.  Your name is so misused, misunderstood, burdened – just saying what we call you causes visceral reactions that lead us away from even exploring you.   I know that you don’t cause disease or the Holocaust or Genocide – human beings do.  I know that you don’t want us to suffer.  I know that you yearn for us to be humane and to live by the ethics and values of Torah more than you care about us worshipping you.  How might we describe you and even that word is so limiting: that which is transcendent, that which is more than the sum of its parts, that which I do not understand and often scares me, that which is Eternal and Divine.  I know you are looking for me as I am looking for you. 

And then the three critical verbs:  Shecheyenu, V’kemanu, V’higanu.  Does the rational really explain the miracle of life and conception; that we are here and others are not?  This prayer is about the gratitude we feel in arriving here at this moment again.  It is both humans and God that give us life, it is both God and humans that sustain and nurture us, and it is both in collaboration that are enablers - making the possible out of the impossible, turning nightmares into dreams.

We feel the pulse of life when we do not take life for granted.  We have shecheyenu moments when we see the grandeur and wonder in life, in people, in nature.  We are sustained when we help to sustain others, when we show up for other people and are really there, when we reach out to people who need our support.  We enable ourselves to make a masterpiece of our lives when we enable or empower others to do the same – which means making sure people have equal access to good education, sufficient food, a shelter over their heads, something to be hopeful about.

For me, what is often so missing from the conversations I hear everywhere are critically important  questions: How do I enrich my soul, what can God possibly mean to me as an adult, how do I live a life that is more soulful and mindful?  

Perhaps the greatest scientist ever provided us with the profound insight into the life of the spirit and soul:  “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.  The most beautiful and deepest experience a human being can have is the sense of the mysterious.”  Indeed Einstein knew that there was much more to the world than science could explain.  He knew, like others before him, of the great mystery of the universe that could never be resolved or understood by reason.

Can one be a good Jew without believing in God? Yes.  Can one be a good human being without believing in God? Yes.  Can a good person’s life be enriched by being open to something so incomprehensible and incredible, that all of our descriptions fall way short? Yes. Can a good and ethical person’s life be uplifted by nurturing the soul and conscience? Yes.  Can taking spirituality seriously lead me on a journey of exploration that will expand my understanding of the human experience? Yes.

Let me articulate what I am trying to say tonight in a succinct and explicit way.  My words do not really capture the depth, the nuance or the mystery of what I am trying to get at.  However, here is my best attempt:  This world of ours is hurting, the world is filled with human suffering and degradation, we are destroying the planet and there is excessive violence.

 Our rational approaches to life have for the most part failed us.  We need to find a way of understanding the universe and our place in it.  If we are serious about making life on earth better, it is time that we go deeper into our souls and hearts and see how else we can make sense of life – and that is what I call a spiritual journey.  We need a find a personal connection to that which is beyond and present, to that which challenges us, and to that which nurtures us.

My Prayer:

For all that I feel and experience and for all that I cannot begin to comprehend.

Allow me to be grateful,

To take risks of the spirit

And to do acts that transform the world.

Let me have the courage to take time for my soul – through

Meditation or walking in nature, or prayer.

Enable me to have the courage to let in the mysterious in

the universe in and not to have to rationally explain everything.

Let me have the ability to fully realize that as a human being that I have been given an incredible opportunity
To do something unique, that only I can do.

Let me allow myself to wrestle with the one that is beyond our comprehension like Jacob, to argue like Abraham, to love like Ruth.

Grant me, or let me grant myself, time each day for the nurturing of my soul and conscience, for seeing my place in the universe, to appreciate a grand mystery that will never be solved, to stand still and take in the beauty and magic of the world.

I am grateful for this moment …I am grateful for Creation…I am grateful for being human and for somewhere in my soul being able to experience all that which is transcendent and awe inspiring.  I stand humbly in this spectacular universe.


Rabbi Lee Bycel, October 3, 2014