January 20, 2019

Thanksgiving and Chanukah part two

Spiritual Abundance

(Thanksgiving and Chanukah, part two)

Shabbat MiKetz, 2013

In last column, I wrote about my problem with the notion of giving thanks for the bounty. This does not mean that I don’t experience deep gratitude every day, both as a feeling and as a contemplative practice. I do.

I give thanks daily for, among other things, family, friends, our synagogue members and lay leaders, our devoted staff, certain philanthropists (there is some overlap among these categories).  I also am grateful for living at a time when the State of Israel exists, and am grateful for being a citizen of the United States. I am grateful consciously to all those in history who have created and sustained those two miracles. I am blessed and grateful that I am Jew.  Having survived a heart attack in 2006, I am daily grateful just to be alive.

I do feel, rightly or wrongly, a touch of the hand of the divine in all of those listed above in some general way, but it is hard for me pin down the specific moment when I would say “that was God’s hand.”  There are so many paths I could have taken in life, by choice and otherwise, that may or may not have brought me to this moment. Sometimes when I describe the odd twists of circumstance that have led me to this place to a couple who met at Ohr HaTorah, they have a concerned look on their faces. “If you guys had not founded Ohr HaTorah, then we would have never met and our kids wouldn’t be alive” they say with alarm. The slippery hand of fate is terrifying to behold. Does the hand of God clutch us from the path or the destiny that is not ours, and bring us to our rightful journey?  It feels that way.

When I raise the lens from my life, however, and think of what I know, my theory falters. All those millions who were murdered by tyrants or murdered by thugs,  innocents dying in war, or ravaged by disease, people living desperate and hopeless lives, mental illness . . . the list is painful to consider.

If God led me to the miracles that are my life, then were they led by the same God to their bitter circumstances? If God puts bounty on my table, does God withhold bounty from others? Some say to me:  there is divine plan in which this all works out. Personally, I doubt it. “Are you smarter that God?”  I am asked. It is a silly question, but in response I say, “No, but I am smart enough to recognize a pattern. I don’t see one here.” When someone contemplates the horrible fate of another and says “It’s God will” I have to breathe and exhale very slowly.

My deep gratitude does not match up with my theory that the hand of the divine cannot reach into this realm, that in this realm, we are stranded.

It is for this reason that I differentiate strongly between theology and spirituality. I was very good at theology when I was in seminary, and was even told that I might be one day an important Reform theologian. My life turned me away from study of theology to the study of spirituality, to Mussar, to Chasidut, to human experience and transformation. I quip, “I only have enough of a theology to fuel my spiritual psychology.” (Circumstances don’t allow me to use this quip often, but I always have it ready).

Chanukah: As I wrote before, I am grateful for the warrior spirits of those who fought the war against the Syrian Hellenists. I am also grateful for the generations of pious jurists and mystics, preachers and poets who took advantage of what the Maccabees saved from annihilation and turned it into a magnificent treasure house. Students of Torah are brought to tears by the sublime found there.

When I look at the Chanukah lights, I don’t think about the fable of the miracle of the oil, which misdirects us from considering that a candle stands for the human soul. I am thankful for the spirits and souls of all of those, like the Maccabees, who fought when fighting was needed.

When I look at the Thanksgiving table, I look at the faces of the people, who are, and stand for, the deepest miracles of my life. I feel the generous hand of the Divine and the spiritual abundance in my life.