Parashat Ha’azinu: Doubting “The Rock”

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis
September 29, 2012 / 13 Tishrei 5773

To listen to the musical refrain that was chanted on Shabbat by Cantors Abrams and Newman, go to the website and click play on “Lecha Amar Libi.”

http://www.navatehila.org/35897/High-Holidays-Chants

 לְךָ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּשׁ

l’kha amar libi bakshu fanei et panekha adonai avakesh

Of You, my heart says “Seek My face.” It is your face that I seek, God

We are at the beginning of a new year. We just concluded Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and were looking forward to Sukkot. And this is Shabbat when mourning is forbidden. But I know that for many of us, the oneg (joy) of Shabbat, the high of the High Holy Days and the anticipation of the hag has been dashed as we grapple with a tragedy that has struck our Beth El family and our Minneapolis community- the senseless murder of our friend Reuven Rahamim and his co-workers. We pray for those injured and express our deepest condolences to all of the families touched by this senseless murder. At this hour we feel great sorrow. We feel anger. We feel numb. We feel all of those things. And we don’t know what to feel. We are still in shock and disbelief. And our hearts and prayers go out to Reuven’s family.

Among other things, today was the anniversary of Reuven’s bar mitzvah. He was set to read Torah this morning in that wonderful Sephardi trope of his. Now being the Separdi trope, I never knew if he was fudging it, if he was making it up as he went. But it didn’t matter, it always sounded great to me. And as we being to wrap our mind and our hearts around this loss, we turn to the words of our tradition, to our parasha, to Reuven’s parasha for a message of comfort and hope.

We read in the opening verses, “hatzur tamim poalo. God is rock. A faithful God, never false.”

This verse may be familiar to some. It forms the introduction to a prayer known as Tziduk hadin that is traditionally recited at a funeral. Just as a coffin is lowered to the ground, we call out to our “Rock, whose is just and faithful.” When we are shattered and broken, we turn to a source of strength, a tzur a rock. There is no more powerful and comforting description of God. Today we need that eternal source of strength and support.

Tziduk hadin is a challenging prayer not only because it is said at such a raw, difficult time in the funeral service but also because of what it says. After turning to God as a tzur, a rock, an immovable foundation of strength, the prayer ask to affirm God’s justice when we least feel it. Just when we are asking why, how, just when we are saying it’s not fair, it doesn’t seem right, we are called upon to say, “ki kol d’rakhav mishpat, God’s ways are just.”  We are to call God faithful, even when we are feeling faithless.

But a midrash on our verse points our attention in a different direction.

Midrash Tankhuma quotes our verse, “God is a faithful Rock” and then turns to a question. “Why,” the midrash asks, “does King David tell us ‘bakshu panav tamid seek God’s face always?’” If God is eternally present, if God fills the world malei kol haaretz k’vodo, there should be no seeking necessary. God is right here. “Seek God always,” the midrash says, because while sometimes God is visible, sometimes God is absent. Sometimes God is listening, sometimes God is not listening. Sometimes God is found, sometimes God is absent. Sometimes God answers. Sometimes God does not. God is sometimes close by and sometimes far away.

Each assertion has a proof text from the Torah. So about Moshe it says, “vayidaber hashem el moshe God spoke to Moshe.” But in another place the Torah has Moshe call out, “hareini na et k’vodecha, God, show me your glory.” God appeared to the Israelites on Mt Sinai, as it says, “vayiru elohei yisrael.” But later it says, “They didn’t see a thing “lo raitem kol t’munah.”

It is a remarkable midrash, remarkable for its honesty and its understanding of faith. This is not a faith that is black and white, that is believed b’emunah shleima tamid, with full certainty always. Instead, the midrash gives us permission to doubt, liberty to know that questioning is ok, to ask why, how, to say it’s not fair.  It gives us permission to feel what we feel- sometimes there is order, sometimes chaos, sometimes things make sense, sometimes things feel senseless.

The midrash reminds us what we know in our heart- that a life of faithfulness naturally has times of doubt, when we are too angry, or hurt or disappointed to believe. This is not to be feared or denied as long as we never stop seeking. It doesn’t say, “mazu panav tamid, I always see God’s face” but “bakshu fanav don’t stop searching.”

 לְךָ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּשׁ

l’kha amar libi bakshu fanei et panekha adonai avakesh

Of You, my heart says “Seek My face.” It is your face that I seek, God

Our verse begins, “hatzur tamim poalo. God is a rock whose deeds are perfect.” And it continues, “el emunah God is a faithful God.”  It is a striking description and a bit bizarre when you think about it. We understand God as rock, full of strength and power. But don’t we assume that God is full of faith. And what does that even mean “el emunah?” Perhaps a better question is, in whom does God have faith? In us. We say so every morning when we wake up and give thanks

“Modeh ani lifanekha, melekh hay v’kayam, shehehezarta bi nismati rabba emunatekha. I give thanks before you for restoring my soul. Great is your faith in me.” God believes in us even when we sometimes don’t believe in ourselves.

Sometimes we find God close at hand. Sometimes, in the face of loss or tragedy, God is distant. We question. We want clear answers and just keep asking, how, why? And though in those moments when we feel no connection, we find strength knowing “el emunah, God has faith in us.” God believes in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves. God is a rock, a rock of strength. God says, “I don’t mind your questions, I don’t mind your doubt. I believe in you. You can be strong too for I am in each of you. You may feel faithless. But I have faith in you, faith that you will see through the darkness, faith that you will sense your soul restored with each new day. I am not always obvious so seek me, search for me.”

 לְךָ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּשׁ

l’kha amar libi bakshu fanei et panekha adonai avakesh

Of You, my heart says “Seek My face.” It is your face that I seek, God

The other day I sat with a congregant who came to tell me that as much as he liked High Holy Day services, he had to admit, he didn’t always believe in God. He wasn’t always clear where God was in his life. All the more so after this tragedy, do we share this question.

I wish I had known this midrash. But as I fumbled around for an answer, I remembered a reading from our new mahzorim. It speaks not of a static state in which I always believe, in which I always feel God’s closeness. Instead it describes a faith that is utterly real, that is dynamic, one that ebbs and flows with the rhythm of our lives:

“There are moments when we might feel the presence of God and others when our reality- tragic, joyful or uneventful is so overwhelmingly with us that the idea of God seems distant, perhaps ludicrous. But to have faith is equally to know doubt. When the person of faith is in touch with the depth of his or her spiritual and rational consciousness, one knows that one’s heart contains both truths. What are we to do, then other than to live faithfully, with doubt?”

What are we to do? Not to stop questing. Not to stop asking why, what do we do now, how could this happen? We are to ask; we are to call out or yell out. And sometimes, sometimes we find that our seeking is our very finding.  L’kha amar libi means, You, God, cause me to seek.  You implanted within me the desire, the need to seek.

So God, as we hold each other now, holding hands and in our hearts, as we hold each other in the days ahead, we pray “reveal Your tender face of comfort. You believe in us God. Help us believe in You. Let us find strength in You. May our questions, our doubts, our anger, our longing, be our seeking back to You. Let us find You in our pain and our questions for then will You God, truly be that eternal Rock of comfort we seek.

לְךָ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּשׁ

l’kha amar libi bakshu fanei et panekha adonai avakesh

Of You, my heart says “Seek My face.” It is your face that I seek, God

 Excerpt from Midrash Tankhuma:

למה אמר “בקשו פניו תמיד” ללמדך שהקב”ה יתברך שמו פעמים נראה ופעמים אינו נראה פעמים שומע ופעמים אינו רוצה לשמוע, פעמים עונה ופעמים אינו עונה פעמים נדרש ופעמים אינו נדרש פעמים מצוי ופעמים אינו מצוי, פעמים קרוב ופעמים אינו קרוב