Firemen and Troubled People: The Paradox of Prayer
Teaching for Yom Kippur 2023/5784
Zvika Krieger, Chochmat HaLev

Tonight I’d like to discuss a topic that is a little taboo. Something that we often don’t speak about in polite company. Something that many of you might think is inappropriate to discuss in a synagogue. It’s a topic that might make you feel uncomfortable. Tonight I’d like to talk about… God.

Some of you might be excited to talk about God. Some of you may want to get up and leave. You might be thinking, “Why does he have to go and ruin a beautiful prayer service by talking about God?” I hear you. But given that we’re going to be sitting together in prayer for much of the next 24 hours, I think we have to ask ourselves: Who or what are we praying to? And what do we expect will happen as a result of our prayers?

How many of you have a clear sense of who or what God is for you? Raise your hand. How many of you, when you are praying, feel like you are praying to that God? 


The Paradox of Praying to a Non-Dual God

Perhaps, like me, you believe in a non-dual God – which is a fancy way of saying that you don’t believe in God as a separate entity – non-dual, not two. Rather, that God is everything. As described by my teacher Rabbi Art Green, “The One” – capital O – “that embraces, surrounds, and fills all the infinitely varied forms that existence has taken and ever will take.” 

If that’s your conception of God, then you’re in good company with the Jewish mystics. “Do not look at a stone and say, ‘that is a stone and not God,'” says Moshe Cordovero, one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, “for you have dualized — God forbid. Instead, know that the stone is a thing pervaded by Divinity.”

But at the heart of Jewish prayer seems to be the act of asking for something from a God that is outside ourselves. This clashes with a non-dual God, a God that is everything, including you. Even the Jewish prayers that are not asking for anything – prayer of thanksgiving or praise – conceives of God as separate from us. What is prayer if there is no one to pray to?


The Necessity of a Human-Like God

And yet. We live in a world of duality. Humans are relational. We open our hearts and connect to our emotions through our relationships with others. We don’t know any other way to be. 

It’s not surprising, then, that we created a human-like vision of God. The Midrash, our oral tradition, tells the story of God inviting Adam, the first human, to name all the animals. When he is done, God asks Adam to name Godself. Adam could have said anything. But without missing a beat, he says: “You should be called Lord/Adonai, for You are lord over all your works.” 

So it is us, not God, who created this master/servant relationship with the Divine – clearly a relationship from human society projected onto the Divine. Why? Because, answers Rabbi Green, “that was what we needed: someone before whom to bow, to whose authority to submit. It was not that God needed or needs to be melech (king); it was rather we who needed to be avadim (servants).”

This reminds me of a story told by my meditation teacher Tara Brach, about a father who comforts his son during a hurricane, saying, “Don’t worry, God is with you.” After the third night in a row this happens, the son says, “I know God is with me, but I’d feel much better if I was with someone who had skin.” 


Unraveling the Paradox

So: We have a deep human need to serve and be protected by something more powerful than us. We have a human need to conceive of God as a separate being with human-like traits.

And at the same time: Our ancestors teach that God is not a human-like being. God does not hear or listen or choose to act or not act. God doesn’t do anything, God is everything. 

Rationally, these concepts are mutually exclusive. How can we pray to a God when we are God and God is us and everything is God and God is everything and nothing all at once? 

Here is my simple yet radical proposal: What if praying to a humanized God is a pathway to connecting with the One, the God in Everything? 

We need a pathway to that God in Everything because it’s hard to accept the reality of Oneness. We spend so much of our lives trying to differentiate ourselves, to prove that we are special. We invest so much of our energy in affirming this notion that we are separate beings – what psychology would call the ego. And so we create this idea of a separate God because it actually validates our separateness. 

“God and the ego participate in a secret covenant,” says Dr. Daniel Matt, one of the leading experts on Jewish mysticism, who many of you know lives right here in Berkeley, and has taught at Chochmat. “This God reinforces the fragile ego, lending it stability and meaning.”

God is not your parent. God is not a king, a judge, a master, a widow, a shepherd, a virgin bride, a flowing wellspring, or any of the hundreds of other metaphors that pepper our liturgy and our sacred texts. But these images are meant to evoke feelings in us – a gateway to open our hearts.  

Can we believe that these metaphors, to quote Tara Brach, are “real but not true”? The Jewish mystics call this God’s levush, God’s clothing. Don’t confuse God’s clothing for God, they warn, but God’s clothing is essential for us to understand the contours of God. But what if it were a means, not an end? Don’t confuse the metaphors for reality, but also don’t let them go completely.

The images of a parent who offers unconditional love, or a benevolent sovereign who has full control over what happens in their realm, who can protect us against all enemies – these images allow us to soften. To let go of that ego self that we cling so tightly to. To let down our armor. Just as God is not God’s clothing, we are not our armor. An open heart is the way to connect with that ineffable sense of Oneness that is God. And perhaps that is the purpose of prayer.  


The Promise of Oneness

But why is connecting to Oneness so important? Why is the purpose of life, according to the Jewish mystics, to attain “yichud”, to plug in to the unity of all things? Is this an esoteric spiritual pursuit? Or does this so-called “non-dual” worldview offer us something in this life?


The Oneness starts within ourselves. So many of us live a compartmentalized life. We judge parts of ourselves as being bad – as being dirty, profane, weak, ugly, broken. And by refusing to love those parts of ourselves, we live in a constant state of unease, of feeling not-good-enough. The Oneness of the Universe is first and foremost an invitation to embrace the unity of all those parts of ourselves. To accept that all of us is holy because all of us is part of the One. By connecting with that Oneness, we can come to accept all those disparate parts of ourselves. 


Once we’ve embraced the unity of ourselves, we can open more fully to the Oneness of all people. This is not some performative civic unity, “One Nation under God, indivisible.” Nor is it some kumbaya “We are the World” notion. This is a deeper, more visceral sense of interconnectedness. You belong. You are not separate from other people. You don’t need to prove your value or your worthiness. You don’t need to do anything or become anything because you are part of this woven web of existence just as you are. 

This awareness brings with it the opportunity for deep compassion for “others” in our life. When we realize that “otherness” is actually an illusion, we can approach people from a place of empathy. We can see ourselves in them, seeing our hopes and dreams in them, seeing our brokenness in them – and seeing theirs in us. As said by dear chevutah/study partner and spiritual leader Jericho Vincent, “If we truly understand every human being as a drop of the Divine, a cell of the Cosmic Being, it shifts our mentality, it invites us into remembering that everyone… is trying the best they can. Which doesn’t mean they can’t do better, doesn’t mean they – and we – don’t need to be held accountable, but there is space for compassion there.” The forgiveness we talk about on Yom Kippur can find its most authentic expression from this place of Oneness. 

When Jericho and I were discussing this last week, they told me a great story about their four-year-old son Theo, who was describing his day school: “Some other kids were playing Cops and Robbers but I didn’t want to play that so I decided to make my own game. It’s called Fireman and Troubled People.” What might our world look like if, instead of thinking of others as “cops and robbers,” we thought about them as “firemen and troubled people”?


That experience of Oneness can also extend to the natural world that surrounds us. To build on Danny Matt’s metaphor, our need to see ourselves as separate beings requires us to see nature as something separate from us – which is what gives us permission to order limitless Amazon packages, drive carbon-spewing cars, and poison our oceans with single-use plastics. If we were willing to let go of this sense of otherness, how might that impact our relationship to the environment? What might we gain, not just in terms of our grandchildren being able to live on this planet, but in terms of a sense of belonging and connection beyond the human realm?


There’s one last piece of this non-dual reality that to me is the most powerful. By opening myself to Oneness that fills all that ever was, is, and will be, I feel connected to something so vastly greater than myself, so impossible to define or conceive, that I actually need to surrender my need to grasp, to understand. This vast Oneness creates space for mystery, for not-knowing. 

It is exhausting living in a world where we’re expected to always know the answers, to be able to explain everything, be rational and intentional all the time. It feels liberating to put all that down sometimes. It reminds me of a sign I saw at Burning Man that brought me unexpected joy. It said: “The universe has no obligation to make any sense to you.” Indeed.


Closing Blessing

So an open heart is an essential gateway to connecting with the Divine, the Infinite Oneness of All Things. And when we’re able to plug into that Oneness, the result is… an open heart. Borrowing an image from Jewish mystics, it is a kaleidoscopic hall of mirrors that we can enter from either end. 

I don’t have all the answers. This exploration might have left us with more questions than we had when we started — and that is a beautiful state to be in. But I humbly offer to you one possible approach to our original questions: To pray is to soften. To pray is to imagine yourself being held by something greater, something stronger, so that you can let go of what keeps you separate – the parts of yourself that you isolate, and what keeps you separate from others. 

I invite you to take some time to consider: Who or what really opens your heart? What makes you feel safe and loved? And how is that – or could that be – part of who or what you are connecting to through prayer? 

My blessing to all of us is that, through our prayer, we can catch a glimpse of that ineffable, indescribable, mysterious sense of the interconnection of all things that are, that ever were, and that ever will be, and feel the sweet relief of our own wholeness as part of that infinite kaleidoscope of Oneness. 

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