Introduction: More often than not, I write my sermon Friday morning. I knew this Friday would be a little busy so I woke up early and wrote it before davening. It was a wonderful feeling, some pressure of my back, and a certain lightness that accompanied me to shacharis that morning. After davening, Murray Friedman approached me and said: “Rabbi, I just want to confirm that the Haftorah this week is the special one for the Three Weeks, right?”
He was right and I, had just spent a good amount of time writing a drasha that revolved around the wrong Haftorah…
I quickly figured out what I would do, but I decided to have some fun with it and placed a poll on Twitter. I wrote: Rabbi Fail – I forgot that we switch this weeks haftorah because it’s the Three Weeks and spent the morning writing a drasha on what is NOT the Haftorah. Do I…
I then listed three options and asked people to vote, which over 50 people actually did. Option one was rewrite the whole thing. 11% thought that was a good idea. I think that’s a chutzpah. Option two, voted on by 20% was, Use the D’var Torah, no one will know the difference… And the final option, the option that I decided already to go with was, Use the D’var Torah and acknowledge that I am human and make mistakes. And hope I don’t get fired for not knowing what Haftorah it is…
Imagine the following scene –
Rob and Ray over there grab water hoses and start spraying water all over and all around this pulpit. Like a LOT of water. Then, we turn the sprinkling system on (we don’t actually have a sprinkling system, but work with me) and it’s pouring water all over. And then, I lift my hands up like this, and yell: “G-d, if You exist, if You can see us and care about the decisions we make, if You want us to be meticulous in Mitzvah observance, if You want each of us to turn our lives around, then send down a HUGE fire from heaven and burn this pulpit to a pulp!”
And then, a fire appears right above the pulpit, and slowly descends, and with all the water spraying everywhere, it consumes this pulpit in an inferno.
Now of course the first thing that will cross your mind is, “Wow, I didn’t know the rabbi’s also a magician…” BUT THIS IS NOT A MAGIC SHOW! You’ll know, somehow, that this is legit.
Would that change your life? A fire descending from heaven. It does not get more old-school miraculous than that. Would that change you? Would that make you a greater believer? Would that impact the way you daven? Would that change how you spend your Shabbos? Your every day? Knowing for a FACT – because you saw it with your own eyes – that G-d exists, that He sees you, that He cares about you. I can’t think of anything more inspiring or life-changing than witnessing a full-blown miracle.
About two thousand five hundred years ago, your great-great-grandparents lived in Israel. They weren’t that different than us. They went to shul, they kept some mitzvos, they identified themselves as good Jews, buuuut they also did some other stuff that didn’t exactly fit that billing. They weren’t always so careful about this Mitzvah or that Mitzvah. They believed but they had their doubts. Sounds familiar?
Eliyahu Hanavi, the great prophet, had a fabulous idea – I am going to inspire the Jewish People, by giving them the most magnificent, spiritual experience, so that this inner struggle, the inconsistency, the apathy, it will all be done with, once and for all.
And so Eliyahu gathers the Jewish People to a Mt. Carmel, and he does exactly what we just envisioned. He takes an animal, places it on an altar, surrounds the altar with buckets of water, and then he prays. And in full sight of the entirety of the Jewish People, a fire comes down from the sky, lower and lower, and then burns the wet animal, sitting in buckets of water, to a crisp. You know what happens?
The people go crazy – “HASHEM HU ELOKIM! Hashem is our G-d,” they yell out in a frenzy. Game over. Eliyahu nailed it. This is the life-changing, inspiring moment they’ve all been waiting for. Shabbos is going to be Shabbos; I won’t even dip my feet in the pool. Kosher is going to be Kosher; no messing around, even when I’m on vacation. I’m going to pray every day. Like, really pray. I might even show up to weekday minyan. I’m going to be kidn to people, not only in public, but behind closed doors. Torah study, lashon hara, you name it.
And it works. This group of Jews who were, in the words of Eliyahu, posei’ah al shnei se’ifim, who were wildly inconsistent, they change overnight.
But then, a day later, maybe a week later, it all falls apart. Despite that intense experience of rapture, it doesn’t stick. Before you know it, the Jewish People are back to their inconsistent, apathetic, Jewish life.
Out of all the challenges people present to me, there is one that I really struggle addressing. I get some pretty wild and difficult questions sent my way, and they’re painful, they rip your heart to shreds, but I’m not afraid of them. But there’s one question that scares me:
“Rabbi, I don’t feel inspired. How do I get back that spark of inspiration in my spiritual life?”
You ask me that question, in my head, I run for the door.
I’ll be honest, it’s embarrassing. You want to ask me why bad things happen to good people? I could spend the next ten hours giving you a lecture on the topic. Your relationship is on the rocks? I could try share some practical advice and happy to help finding you a good therapist. But the one question which is probably the most basic to my job – helping people feel connected to G-d, guiding people in finding a spark and passion, ensuring that there is a spirit of inspiration in our lives, that question… I can’t answer it. Or to say it better, I can’t answer it in a way that you, the questioner will be satisfied. And that’s a problem.
If you’ve ever experienced that feeling of being really inspired – maybe you felt your breath caught in your chest, or the room expanding, or you felt absolutely certain about something, or total clarity, or just a sense that you were standing before G-d – that feeling is bliss, right? But as we all know, those feelings don’t last for very long. And so those blissful feelings end up being the biggest tease. Because we know what they are; we’ve experienced them, they were awesome. But now we can’t. And so now, we feel like we’re groping in the dark.
“Rabbi, I don’t feel inspired anymore.”
“Rabbi, what do I do to feel connected?”
“Rabbi, how do I recreate that amazing sense of connection that I used to have?”
I’m comforted by today’s almost Haftorah. In the Haftorah we did not read, I learned that I’m not the only one who doesn’t know how to deal with this. Eliyahu Hanavi, after bringing that heavenly fire down to earth, after facilitating the most spiritual experience ever, after witnessing the Jewish People change overnight, and then witnessing them lose that inspiration entirely, he ran away. Now, part of the reason he ran away is because some people wanted to kill him. But he also ran away because he was experiencing an existential crisis; what did I do wrong? I did everything I can to bring the Jewish People back to G-d, and it failed. What else can I have possibly done to inspire the Jewish People? Eliyahu is down, he’s depressed, he can’t understand what went wrong. So G-d shows up and gives him a masterclass in inspiration and it goes like this:
First G-d sends a powerful wind, and Eliyahu assumes, this is an image of G-d, but he doesn’t see G-d in the wind. And then G-d sends an earthquake, and Eliyahu assumes that G-d is found in that earthquake, but He’s not. And then G-d sends a fire, and Eliyahu just know that this fire is a representation of G-d, but it’s not. And then finally, G-d sends forth, a thin still voice, kol d’mamah daka, and G-d, we read, is found there, in that thin still voice.
To paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: G-d was trying to teach Eliyahu by not appearing in the whirlwind, by not appearing in the earthquake, and by not appearing in the fire, that G-d is not to be found in violent confrontation, in drama, with spectacle. Rather G-d is found in gentleness and the word softly spoken. G-d was telling Eliyahu that true G-dliness is found far away from the drama.
And that’s why it’s so hard to guide people to be inspired. That’s why it’s so hard to say some words, and poof, the listener feels turned on. What we’re after is a fallacy. It doesn’t work. It’s not meant to work.
Moishe Bane, President of the Orthodox Union, summed it up quite nicely in a recent article. He wrote: “Perhaps we confuse holiness with religious exuberance just as young people often mistake infatuation for love. Infatuation, though exhilarating and intense, inevitably fades. Authentic love, by contrast, builds slowly over time. An authentic relationship with our Creator is the same.”
True love is not Hollywood. True love is showing up day in and day out. At times, it’s draining and difficult and not fun. Fireworks is getting the kids out the door in the morning. Passion is scrubbing the floor vigorously after someone spilled a bottle of milk. Romance is unplugging a toilet.
But between all that, there are sparks, a smile, a gaze, a touch. There is richness, there is beauty, and there is love, but it’s found thin voice and silence. And that’s exactly how inspiration works.
Can I invite you in to my davening experience?
I daven three times a day, every single day. And almost every day, I take three steps back, and I try to speak G-d. I say all the words and I try to say them with meaning. But more often than not it feels like I am smashing my head against a wall. Lightly. The words aren’t going anywhere. They fall flat. I could feel them falling flat. And then – once every, I don’t even know, the room melts away, and the words are like magic, they roll off my tongue, and I sense, I know, that they’re connecting to Hashem, and I feel G-d’s Presence right there in front of me. And then, smashing my head against a spiritual wall for weeks on end.
But that’s the only way it works, and that’s okay. Embrace it. Inspiration is found by showing up. Connection to G-d, that feeling of being lifted up and inspired is no different than love. You could dim the lights all you want, that’s not how romance works in real life. Day in and day out, consistency, the thin still voice, no drama. And in between the humdrum, the regular, the daily Mitzvos, the tefilos, the Torah study, that’s where love, and that’s where a deep and exciting and passionate connection to G-d is really found.
We’re celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of Yehuda Friedman. Yehuda, it has been a pleasure watching you grow up, and I mean that literally. Wow. In addition to height, G-d gave you many talents and qualities; you’re creative, you’re an artist, a sensitive soul. You’re protective over your younger siblings, you’re doting on your mother. You’re responsible – if anyone needs their lawn mowed, let Yehuda know. And today, Yehuda, you’re beginning a journey called Judaism.
Yehuda, I need to warn you – I hope over the next couple of years you have a wildy inspiring experience. Many of us, somewhere between teenagehood and young adulthood, have some life-defining spiritual experience that we never forget. But then, life’s going to get busy, you’re going to grow up, and you’re going to wonder, where’s that inspiration I once felt? Where’s that rush and intensity that I once had? Was it nothing? Can I ever access it again? How else will I feel connected to Hashem? How else will I feel inspired to be a good Jew?
And I hope you remember this speech. I hope you remember the lesson from Eliyahu Hanavi, the kol d’mamah daka, that in the thin still voice, and know to look there for inspiration.
But the truth is, even if you forget this speech, and even if you forget me, I’m not worried. Because you’ll have your Aba and Ima to look to. And you’ll see two paragons of quiet consistency, two people who if you look closely, glow ever so faintly, two people who so clearly are invested in one another, invested in you, and in their quiet and consistent way are teaching you what love really is, love of a spouse, love of a child, but also the recipe for love of G-d: kol d’mama daka, that thin, consistent, and still voice. Don’t give up. Show up. Because that’s where the magic is found.