A Study Guide for: “God Was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know” by Lawrence Kushner

god-was-in-this-placeGod Was in this Place, & I, i Did Not Know

A Study Guide

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel NIV

Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it[c] stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

 

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel the Message

Genesis 28:10-12 Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

13-15 Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”

16-17 Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”

 

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel NRSV

 

Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

 

Prologue:

 

Page 12: “God is in the self, but the self is not God.” For this reason these pages are really, in a larger sense, about one’s own self and the Self of the Universe.

 

How do you suppose that God is part of your “self?” How are ourselves not God? Do you think the Universe has a Self?

 

Page 14:   . . . the question is itself the answer. . . . You already have what you are looking for. . .

. . . the ultimate question one can ask. . . is not “What is the meaning of life?” or even “Why am I here?” but simply “Who?” . . . And the question “Who?” is a request for either a name or a personal pronoun. The answer, in other words, must be personal. It must be a self.

 

Do you think God is personal or impersonal?   Again does the Universe have a Self?

 

Page 15: Only when the words of the text are holy or, like a love letter, are read with a diligence of attention bordering on reverence, can midrash occur.

 

A diligence of attention bordering on reverence, are there any books or texts that captivate your complete attention?

 

Rashi

 

Page 25: The “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.

 

What are the outer limits of your attention span? Have you ever been aware of something happening, after you took a second look? How long do we have to be able to look in order to see what is happening around us? Have you ever had a moment in which you thought you might just be in God’s presence?

 

Page 26: Wake Up! Most of the time the lights are on but no one is home. . . . We find what we seek. And we seek who we are.

 

When asked who he was, the Buddha said, “I am awake.” What are the moments in your life, when you are most awake? Are there ways of expanding our consciousness so we are able to seek beyond our usual boundaries? Who is seeking?

 

Oblivious to Miracles

 

Page 26 – 27: The story of Reuven and Shimon asks us what miracles are we missing? Can you think of any spiritual practices that can help us open ourselves to perceiving the miracles in everyday life?

 

“If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.” In retrospect can you imagine places in your life, when God has been present and you did not know?

 

Page 28: Spirituality is that dimension of living in which we are aware of God’s presence. . . Jewish spirituality is about the immediacy of God’s presence everywhere. It is about patience and paying attention, about seeing and feeling, and hearing things that only a moment abo were inaccessible.

 

Are there spiritual practices that can help us become more spiritual? When are you most aware of God’s presence?

 

Being Present

 

You already are where you need to be. You need go nowhere else. Feel it now in the moisture on your tongue. Sense the effortless filling and emptying of your lungs, the involuntary blinking of your eyes. Just an inch or so behind your sternum where your heart beats. That is where the makom (the place) is. Right here all along and we did not know it because we were fast asleep, here in this very makom.

 

Where should we seek God? Are there in fact some places, where it is easier to sense God’s presence than others? What places do you experience as holy?

 

. . . the most powerful moments of teaching occur when the teacher has enough self-control to remain silent.

 

Are there times in your life, when you have learned from silence? Have you ever experienced a mentor or teacher, who knew when to be silent?

 

Kotzk

 

Page 37: The students who gathered in Kotzk were slapped in the face. They understood the injury as a necessary step toward apprehending the truth. And each day the truth had to be “found anew, as if it had never been known.” In this search, their constant and greatest adversary was none other than their own egos. “The true worship of God. . . . is not in finding the truth, but rather in . . . total abandonment of self.”

In some Buddhist schools of meditation the Master strikes the student as a way of “waking them up.” Do you think the Kotsk school was at all similar in the slapping of the students. Have you ever experienced a reminder that jolted you awake to the interference of your own ego?

 

Pages 39 – 40: Kotzk deliberately misreads the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses recalls his experience at Sinai and says, “I stood between God and you.” Says Menachem Mendl, that it is you I, “your ego that stands between you and God. Normally not even an iron barrier can separate Israel from God, but self-love, egotism will drive them apart.”

 

In others words, there is only room enough in this world for one ego, yours or God’s. You pick. Paraphrasing the words of the Talmud, “The Holy One says of anyone who is conceited, there is only room in this world for one ego, yours or Mine.”

 

Do you think God has an ego? If ourselves are part of God, but ourselves are not God, then how is our ego part of God? Or is it? Can you draw a Venn Diagram?

 

Page 44: I’m God; you’re not.” God can only be God when you are not.

Do you think it is possible to be an atheist without confusing God with self?

 

Egotism and Idolatry

 

Page 46: Ego is not thinking you’re talented or a good person. That is only self-confidence, or, in extreme cases, ordinary conceit. Ego is arrogance. It is thinking that you are better than someone else. It is making yourself big in the presence, and at the expense, of someone else. A hermit cannot be arrogant. An ego needs someone else, another person, one you believe to be inferior to you, in front of whom you can preen, raise your shin, and stretch your beautiful neck.

 

The ultimate fantasy is not just judging yourself to be better than others but trying to make yourself so important that you imagine you can do whatever you please and still live forever. The entire Hebrew Bible can be understood as a chronicle of humanity’s incessantly foiled attempts to do whatever they want, live forever, and thereby to be God. In this way both ego and idol attempt to displace God.

 

Somehow egotism is always in the comparing. We compare ourselves to others either individually or collectively, rather than simply accepting the life God has given us as a gift. When do you find yourself most tempted to make judgements about other people? Are there spiritual practices that can pull us back from egotism?

 

Redundant Personal Pronoun

 

Page 47 – 48: This simple “extra I” (which the school of Kotzk identifies was ego or conceit) leads Pinhas Horowitz, the author of a Hasidic commentary on the Torah, Panim Yafot, to an important insight. “It is only possible for a person to attain that high rung of being able to say, ‘Surely God is in this place,’ when he or she has utterly eradicated all trace of ego from his or her personality, from his or her sense of self, and from his or her being. The phrase, ‘I, i did not know,’ must mean, ‘my I – I did not know’”

 

“The beginning of true piety is not so easy,” whispered the Kotzker. “You must subdue your ego and call yourself a liar. It could make you lonely and a little crazy. A crazy man about God. You understand me?”

 

“Yes, I think so. God was here all along, and the reason I didn’t know it is because I was too busy paying attention to myself.”

 

Religious life demands constant vigilance against the schemes of our egos (the little i’s) to supplant the Divine.

 

How do you read the use of the I and the little i? Does this remind you at all of Rabbi Rami, in Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent?

 

Page 68 Perennial Wisdom: When you answer the question “Where did I come from? With “I am alien,” you are prevented from realizing the greater you, the organic you, the you that is the universe manifest as you in this moment and in this place. When you answer the question with “I belong,” you quickly move beyond the isolated egoic “I” to the “I” of universe then to the “I” of God, the eternal Spirit that is all the objects we perceive around and within us.

 

Humility

 

Page 51: Martin Buber teaches that humility, in classical Hasidism, is built around the notion that each person is unique and therefore, precious. . .

Humility commences with the realization that no one is inferior or superior to anyone else. This fundamental egalitarianism then matures into a willingness to give of oneself to another. Until, finally, true humility generates a love for all creatures.

 

Humility welcomes everyone regardless of their circumstances or their identity, because each person is a unique expression of the creativity of God. What kinds of people, however, are the hardest for you to accept? How do you understand humility? Are there any spiritual practices that encourage humility?

 

Ludomir

 

Pages 60 – 61 In the center of mural at least as large as the viewer there are three people: a mother holding her infant child to her bosom, faces the trench. Just behind her, at point blank range, a you German soldier trains the sights of his rifle at the woman’s head, about to shoot. (The end of the rifle barrel is no farther away from her head than the reader’s eyes are from this printed page.) In the background there are clouds and the gently waving, autumn grass of this unnamed Polish field.

 

If there is a God, where was that God when this photograph was taken? God was there. See, we have a photograph. There is God, over there in the ditch, in the mother’s terrified eyes, even in the psychosis of the Nazi soldier. There is God, an ashen reality, now almost two generations later, more mysterious and holy than ever. The question is not Where was God? But Why do human beings do such things? Blaming God not only absolves us but increases the likelihood that we will allow such horrors to happen again.

 

How could God allow such a thing? Why didn’t God do anything? To ask such questions assumes that God occasionally intervenes in human affairs without human agency. Yet countless events remind us that God does not work like that. Indeed, while it contradicts literal readings of some sacred texts, we suspect God never has. God did not die in the Holocaust, only the Deuteronomic idea of a God who, through suspending laws of nature, rewards and punishes people. . . .

This is simply not how the world works. And all theology after the Holocaust must begin with this acknowledgement. . . . What is evil and where does it come from?

 

Can you see God in the ovens of Auschwitz? Can you see God is the face of a soldier about execute innocent victims? Can you see God in a drone circling a compound about to fire a missile? Is God only where things are “nice,” or can God be found in evil and ugliness?

 

Bad and Evil

 

Page 61 – 62 First of all many things are bad that are not evil. This is a very important but often overlooked distinction. “Bad” means “unfortunate,” “painful,” and even “horrible,” but it does not mean that someone is necessarily responsible for what has happened. A freak accident, for which no one is to blame, for instance, is “bad,” but it is not “evil.” Other times “bad” means “unethical,” “wicked,” and “evil.” . . . So “bad” can mean either “unfortunate,” as in “no one is to blame,” or it can also mean “evil,” as in “someone has caused this bad thing to happen.”

 

This double meaning of “bad” probably reflects a time when human beings believed that they were powerless in the face of whatever befell them and that everything that happened was caused by God. . . .

 

Therefore the question “Why is there evil in the world?” means “Why are human beings evil?” or “What is the origin of human cruelty?” Sometimes people suffer because of some evil they themselves or others did or did not do, and sometimes they suffer through no one’s fault, although the range of accidents tends to diminish sharply with maturity and responsibility.

 

Do you think we can always sort out the difference between bad and evil? Can you identify any situations in your life that have been purely evil? Can something be evil that is the result of stupidity? Where does stupidity end and evil begin?

 

Page 64: And it God is everywhere, God is also in the perverse things we plan and carry out. . . . “God is present even in our sins.” And rejecting our sins only postpones the ultimate task of healing and self-reunification. Such an acceptance of all of ourselves is another way of finding God.

 

What are your sins you find most difficult to accept? Do you ever find yourself reviewing your past life, and finding a kind of humorous acceptance of the some of the dumb things you have done? If you were given an opportunity for a do-over, what in your life, knowing what you know now, would you try to do over? How do you imagine your life would be different?

 

Page 65: The Baal Shem Tov taught that God is actually hidden within all evil and suffering, but that God only hides when people do not realize that God is there.

 

Can you imagine any times, when God may have been hiding in a situation of misery or suffering?

 

Page 66: Why would anyone ever choose evil at all? Why would a human being ever do anything cruel? That is the question. According to Jewish legend, the pain of being human being (and thus for many, the resultant evil that people do) inn two primal psychological “tearings.” Something is separated, rejected, and made “other.” And the memory of the tearing, the wound, is too painful to endure. (And indeed, when theses “tearings,” as they so often do, shape the parent child relationship itself, the result . . . is the psychopathology of child abuse. From parent to child one generation after another. A contemporary definition of original sin.) And the social institutions and political and political states that people fashion naturally resemble their creators.

 

Page 67: In the first tearing, a part of ourselves is rejected and identified as “enemy/” The second tearing involves every human being’s traumatic separation from his her parents, the process of individuation and becoming autonomous. Both are lifelong, unending struggles. In one we tear off a part of ourselves to maintain our own sense of goodness, and in the other we experience ourselves as having been torn away for our own good. . . . And important elements of each are expressed in Jacob’s own life story. Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, is made into an enemy. And Jacob must leave his parents, never to see them again.

 

Often when reject a part of our shadow side, we project it onto others. Can you think of a time when you have projected your own feelings onto others? In the story of Jacob, his twin becomes the enemy. Have you seen families in which people have become rivals and them enemies? What kind of “pay-back” does Rebecca collect for her favoritism of Jacob? How easy or difficult was your separating out from your parents? In what ways has your separating out from your parents continued even into later adulthood?

 

Pages 67 – 68: In order to understand the first tearing and the process that makes Esau an enemy, we must consider the legends surrounding Amalek, the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish people. . .

 

This is not the simple “good guy/bad guy” scenario it first appears to be. The rabbis go on to teach that the wicked Amalek is descended from a woman named Timna. And while Timna was once in love with Jacob, he wouldn’t give her the time of day. Thus spurned, she became instead a concubine of Jacob’s nephew, Eliphaz. . .

 

This messy family arrangement also means, or course, that Timna’s father-in-law was Jacob’s twin, Esau. And rabbinic tradition is quick to note that not only was Esau himself rejected, but that he once shared a womb with Jacob. Nothing more than the thinness of a membrane separated Esau, the great-grandfather of Amalek from Jacob. . . .

 

Jacob rejects Timna, Jacob rejects Esau. They would have loved to be, or once were part of him. Now they are “other.” Now they are enemy. Being torn away, that is the source3 of the pain we feel and probably of the pain we, in turn, inflict on others. All humanity is a closed organic system. Pain put into the system sooner or later comes back to us. Generation after generation. What goes around, comes around.

 

Have you observed multigenerational conflicts in families or groups around you? To what extent might the Jacob/Esau tearing be describing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? Or given the tremendous amount of miscegenation that occurred in America, could this also be a description of a black and white tearing in America?

 

The Unnamed Wrestler

 

Page 69 – 71: We now understand why the struggle between Jacob and Esau assumes such significance. That night, over two decades later, when Jacob is left alone on the other side of the Jabok, he wrestles with another being. Was it his conscience, an angel, the patron of Esau, a divine being, or perhaps a once-rejected side of himself? The text does say, “You have wrestled with beings divine and human. . . “

 

The unnamed night wrestler of Genesis 32 represents a dimension of ourselves that has been rejected and labeled as “evil other.” It comes back to injure and name us during the night. And since it is still a part of ourselves we cannot bear to acknowledge, when we sense it in someone else, we are all the more frightened and angry. And often, failing to find it in someone else, we project it onto them anyway for this deludes and comforts us into feeling that we have utterly torn it away. Hating something in someone else is easier than self-reproach.

 

Once we realize that what we detest in another person only wants to be accepted, taken back, and loved, do we begin to diminish our own capacity for evil. By embracing what was never really other, we neutralize the evil. We heal and redeem it and, in so doing, we heal ourselves and God.

 

Early Hasidism develop a doctrine called “strange thoughts,” or “lascivious thoughts” during prayer. According to this teaching, one sure sign that we have attained a high level in prayer is that invariable we will be assailed by embarrassingly wicked thoughts. Our first inclination is to reject them at once, but, as everyone knows, this only gives them greater power over our prayers. We must counsels the Baal Shem, realize that such thoughts are in reality only rejected parts of ourselves that sense this time of great closeness to God and come out of our unconscious yearning for redemption. . . .

 

Hannah Rachel of Ludomir, whose eyes restlessly search the horizon for someone else, carefully explained to Jacob that he must learn how, as the Hasidim say it, to “find the root of love in evil so as to sweeten evil and turn it into love.

 

Welcoming home rejected parts of ourselves may be embarrassing. What parts of our own self do you find most embarrassing and want to hide? In what ways do nick names sometimes represent our renaming by a rejected part of ourselves? What parts of ourselves do we most want to heal and redeem? Have you ever encountered lascivious thoughts in prayer? Do you think it is possible to find the love in evil? How will that turn evil into love?

 

The Set-up in the Garden

 

Page 71 – 72: The second form of tearing that is responsible for human evil comes from parents and children separating from one another. The price a human being pays for growing into autonomous adult is the pain of leaving home. I am now convinced the Eden story intuits this.

 

If God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, then why put it right there, out in the middle of the garden where Adam and Eve could reach it? Why didn’t God just hide the fruit somewhere deep in the forest? And then, equally puzzling, after putting the tree in the middle of the garden, why did God specifically tell Adam and Eve to be sure not to eat the fruit? . . .

 

Maybe God realized that Adam and Eve weren’t clever enough on their own to figure out how to sin. After universes of infantile obedience, they remained tediously, predictable, and incorrigibly infantile.

 

“Yes, Daddy, yes Mommy, whatever you want.”

“This will never work,” reasons God. “Better they should know some sin, estrangement, and guilt but at least become autonomous human beings rather than remain these insipid, goody-two-shoes infants. But I can’t just make them autonomous. If I did, their autonomy, their individuation, their independence would be a sham. They must earn it themselves. They must want it badly enough to pay a price. I’ll let them make their own children, but first they must earn their autonomy.

 

I suspect it was for this reason, out of desperation, that God resorted to a “setup” that has come to be known as the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Eating the first fruit was not a sin but a necessary, prearranged passage toward human maturity. We have read it all wrong: God was not angry; God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.

 

How do you feel about this version of the story of “estrangement from God” and our separation out from parents? What is your most vivid memory of disobeying your parents? What forms of “sin” do you think God is most forgiving? What has been the price you have paid from becoming an autonomous adult? If human beings have a hard time separating out from parents, do you suppose parents ever have a hard time separating out from their children?

 

God Has Been Here All Along

 

Page 77 – 78: Jacob wondered now if God hadn’t been a player all along. Perhaps that was the real meaning of the dream: not so much that the deal between himself and God was still on, not even that God would bring him safely back to this place, but that God was still present throughout the whole fiasco. . .

 

Thinking this way about what he had done still made him feel ashamed but not devastated. He could at least imagine trying, as Hasidism would say, “to raise and sweeten” the evil devisings of his heart. To let them be a part of God’s plan without hurting others at the same time. He could not imagine trying to take the pain he now realized was deep inside him and instead of hurting others to simply cry instead. He could even imagine how, perhaps in some safe future place, he might again someday be able to discern God’s presence and the outline of some kind of plan. But he also knew, deep in his gut, that most of time such retrospective consolation would be concealed from him.

 

Do you ever have the sense in looking out over your life, you can sense of hand of God in your life? Do you think that ever in retrospect you will ever understand fully your purpose in having life your life? Where do you think God might be working out a purpose in your life now?

 

Sweetening the Evil in Yourself

 

Page 78 – 80: We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done — not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

 

We lose our temper because we want things to be better right away. We gaze with lustful eyes because we have forgotten how to love the ones we want to love. We hoard material possessions because we imagine they will help us live more fully. . . .

 

We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again; that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves. . .

 

This time Jacob tells the truth! Now, over two decades later, he manages to unify both sides of his personality. And the minute he tells the truth about his identity to the nameless night wrestler, his other side, his twin brother, (God?), he is transformed into Israel. Now he is the being who has struggled with beings human and divine and survived. He rises to his destiny.

In many religious traditions during periods of confession or repentance, people literally beat themselves with chains or flails. In many Protestant traditions people beat themselves over the head over and over again. How do you think Kushner thinks we ought to handle our sins. What has been your most important spiritual wrestling?

 

Mezritch

 

Self-Reflection – Three Selves

 

Page 84: “In order to be aware of yourself,” explained the Maggid, “a part of you must be looking at the rest of you. You have deliberately broken off a piece of your consciousness, set it a few inches over your shoulder, and you depend on this little piece of knowing to inform the remainder of our consciousness that it is you.”

 

Have you ever experienced yourself observing yourself? How is the observer different and the same as yourself?

 

Page 85: .. . . . But you must understand that there are three stages of self.” . . . “The first stage is simply earning a living. Preoccupied with mouths to feed, needing sleep, and, if they are lucky, finding some leisure to sit down and rest, they do not have time to ponder whether or not they have selves or the designs of the Holy One of Being. For them it is enough to attend the house of prayer in the morning and the evening, give a little to charity, observe the Sabbath. . . .

 

“Then there are the ones who are driven to ask questions.” . . . “These are the ones who know that they have selves. Afflicted with the ancient questions of who they are and who God is, they sit with their feet in cold water so that can stay awake a few more hours and read just another page or two of Talmud, driven by the hope that the answer will be on the next page, condemned by self-reflection to be aware they themselves are the ones who are searching.”

 

“Some, the third kind,” he glanced at the first beams of sunlight now turning the night sky into dawn, “are no longer aware of their selves. They are very close to God.”

 

“Then what is the difference between them and the first group of people who were preoccupied with earning their living?” Asked Jacob.

 

“Not much. Maybe only that they have gone on the journey and returned to precisely the same place from which they began,” shrugged the master.

 

What kind of person do you think you are? Do you really think there is not much difference between the first kind of person and the third kind of person? How important is the journey?

 

Washing the Dishes

 

Page 86:   The great insight of religion is not that we can find God in everyday life; it is that finding God returns us to everyday life. Forgetting one’s self, making the self as nothing, give us life beyond thinking and theology, beyond the incessant self-reflecting that renders us voyeurs of our own lives.

 

Have you ever felt like a “voyeur” of your own life? Have you ever experienced forgetting yourself long enough to be in the here and now?

 

Rituals of the Mind

 

Page 87 – 88: So why have religion at all? Why not just live and enjoy life? Because sooner or later we all lose that childlike ability to simply live each moment without reflection. We ask ourselves the great question. Overwhelmed by the mystery of existence, we are embarrassed to hear ourselves whisper, “Who?” The question comes in many disguises and according to many timetables. For some, it takes shape only over decades. For others, the world is shattered in an instant. But sooner or later the question comes to every human being.

 

When or where has life’s question come to you? How is it different to ask “Who?”, rather than “What?” Is it every important to ask “Where?” or “When?”

 

Page 88 – 89: Religious rituals are a funny sequence of things we do to help us remember that we have forgotten why we have been created, and gently provide us with the instruments of return. They are ancient techniques for sending us back to everyday life with a childlike sense of wonder.

 

What religious rituals do you find most comforting? Most challenging? Are there any rituals that help you to focus in the here and now? Do you have any non-religious rituals in your day?

 

Speaker of the Self

 

Page 89 – 91: . . . when you talk to yourself, who’s talking and who’s listening?

 

. . . the fact that we can hold these interior conversations with our “selves” means that we are fragmented, alienated, broken. If we were whole, then there could be no conversation, because there would be no one else “in there” to talk to. . . .

 

Too much concentration can be worse than none at all. . . The goal seems to be how to do something with all your heart without forgetting the sanctity of what you’re doing. . .

 

Similarly, my teenage daughter (the one who became a Rabbi) once explained to me, “You cannot dance if yo9u are worried about what you look like on the dance floor. You must give yourself to the music, let it tell you what to do; quit being so self-conscious. The only way you will ever know you are dancing is if, once the music has stopped, you didn’t realize you were dancing.”

Who is talking, and who is listening? Can you identify these different selves? Have you ever really been able to dance? I have often said, it is almost impossible to worship and lead worship at the same time. Every time I actually experience worship, I make mistakes in leading it. Have you ever lost yourself in prayer or worship?

 

Face to Face

 

Page 94 -95: We cannot see our own faces without a mirror, and even then the image is reversed. And we cannot know the presence of God until God has departed. . . . In order to be present in God’s presence, all our awareness must be there. Especially and including that part of consciousness that normally tells the rest of consciousness that we are present. But, of course, this means that some of our awareness is not there. . .

 

. . . What God says to Moses at Horeb, “I will let you see anchorai, my back,” the Hebrew is not, as frequently misunderstood anthropomorphic. The word achorai also has a temporal sense. What God says means, “Moses, you cannot know Me at the time when I am present. That would only mean that some part of your brain was hiding behind a rock trying to observe what was going on. No Moses, you can only see achorai – what it’s like must after I have been there.

 

Have you ever had the sense of somehow knowing God was present after the event? Is life review in old age an opportunity to discover God’s presence in our lives in hindsight? Do you now begin to understand this book title: Surely God Was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know.

 

And Empty Throne

 

Pages 97 – 98: One of my Bat Mitzvah students, upon hearing that the letters of the tetragrammaton were all vowels, and therefore were pronounced like breathing and screaming, suggested that the first sound a newborn infant makes as it brings itself into being might be the Name of God.

 

Have you ever been present for the first breath or cry of an infant? Have you ever been present for the last breath of someone you loved? How are those two breaths similar? How are they different? Think back, can you hear God’s name in those breaths?

 

Only Nothing Is Guaranteed

 

Page 98 – 100: . . . only Nothing can embrace all being, infinite possibility, and, therefore, the presence of God. For this reason, one who expects nothing has no guarantees, just openness to every possibility. . .

 

What enormous courage to enter the Nothing of limitless possibility and no guarantees. To let go of the old tangible self, the ego idol, definition, boundary and enter the Nothing. All on the gamble that what you sense within might come to fruition through your courage. To simply entrust yourself to your source. Something akin to exhaling. And about that far away.

 

. . . Again and again we trade infinite wonder for a handful of statue; we barter the limitless Nothing for the short-term bird in the hand. And when the deal is done, we have become what we serve: things rather than children of light.

 

. . . . But Nothing is always there, right where you are. You don’t need to be anywhere or possess anything you don’t even need to put forth your hand. When we say that God is everywhere, we do not mean some invisible, ubiquitous “thing” but another perpetually coexistent mode of being that can be summoned with even casual spiritual discipline. God’s presence is a function of our perception. When we realize that every something – our books, our homes, our fears, our friendships, our selves – rest in Nothing, we have entered the Presence.

 

In prayer or meditation have your ever experienced “Nothing?” What do you think of the idea of God as “No thing?” Thinking of God as “No Thing” do you think you have entered the presence?

 

Nachmani

 

Page 109 – 111: . . .Fear must never be an excuse. You can be weak, you can be confused, you can even be in prison, but you cannot be afraid. The political forces that seek your acquiescence are counting on you to be afraid. Your fear is their most powerful weapon. And when you refuse to be afraid, they fall from the ladder, they cease to exist. . .

 

. . . He is afraid precisely because he is running away, not just from his brother, Esau, but from his parents and everything he has been. And, as Nachmani’s interpretation of the ladder suggests, Jacob is also running away from history. He does not take responsibility for his life or his world or to enter either as an active participant. . . .

 

“But I didn’t realize that this moment was history. I thought it was just another ordinary moment. I didn’t realize that One other than me was also watching, waiting, hoping, peering through the lattice. I didn’t think I could have any impact, that what I did or did not do mattered.”

 

“Well realize it now: What people do matters. . . They trusted where God had put them and in what God put before them. They chose to step forward into their destiny.”

 

What are some of your struggles with fear? What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Have you ever had the sense that you were in an important historical moment? Do you think what you do matters? Has God ever called you to step forward into destiny?

 

Hands of God

 

Pages 121 – 122: Often the window through which you can alter history is as ordinary as a stranger coming to your door and asking for food or money. Other times a tank appears on the street, and you must decide whether or not you will stand in its path. But whether as easy as giving a few dollars or as terrifying as putting your life in jeopardy, something is laid before you. There are many ways to avoid action. We blame others, we say the problem is too big or too complicated, we close our eyes we tell lies. But finally we are free only to step into this moment or back away from it. No matter what we do or do not do, we have made our decision. . . .

 

.. . For, while God does not have hands, we do. Our hands are God’s. And when people behave as if their hands were the hands of God, then God “acts” in history.

 

Do you think you have ever been the hands of God? Do you think churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or other religious organizations are ever behaving like the hands of God? What do you think are the most important reasons religious organizations so often fail in the mission to serve as the hands and feet of God.

 

Environment as Resolution

 

Page 124 – : Our newly emerging understanding of the environment provides us with a new metaphor for the synthesis of mythic and linear conceptions of history. The environment embodies both. We are all living manifestations of an organism called the environment. And this organism seems to move through daily, weekly, monthly, annual cycles. . . And yet, for all of our knowledge of nature’s rhythms, we sense an urgency in our present condition. We correctly understand that we can inflict irreversible ecological damage. . . In the environment the mythic cycles of nature coexist with the irreversibility of linear time. We must act in ways that will ensure that the ever-renewing web of nature will continue to spin. . .

 

Do you think human beings have the will to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment? How important do you think environmental damage will figure into the long course of history?

 

Page 126: “Because you and I and all human beings are created in one image, we are, each of us, versions of God. We are to God as the DNA molecule is to us. So, in addition to seeing the beginning and the end, I also saw myself. All was within me. I stood there with my arms and legs stretched out like the rays of the sun and watched all being pass before me. It was all in my hands. I could do with creation whatever I pleased!”

 

Do you think we are able to do with creation whatever we please? What are the consequences, when we do with creation whatever we please? As humans do you think we should think of ourselves as having dominion over the earth, or should we think of ourselves as stewards of the earth?

 

De Leon

 

            Page 130 – 131: I once asked Daniel Matt, who was tutoring me in Zohar, why, in the Zohar’s sefirotic diagram purporting to describe the infrastructure of creation with ten spheres arranged in a male-female, yin-yang balance, mothering was understood as tern and judgmental while fathering was tender and forgiving. They seemed to reverse human experience. He thought for a moment and surmised with a smile that the Baal HaZohar, the author of the Zohar, must have had one helluva mother. It occurs to me now that his wife may have written much of the book. What we do know is that all Kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, had access to the feminine dimension of themselves and of God. For them, God was potentially both male and female. I now suspect that, in some sense, all were women, every last one of them, drawing freely not only from both sides of consciousness but also from gender.

 

Are you aware of having both a masculine and a feminine side to your own nature? Do you think mysticism is more a part of the feminine side of our natures? Do you think it is possible to have both a feminine and a masculine spirituality?

 

Page 132 – 133: . . . Suppose one of the I’s doesn’t refer to your ego or another mode of consciousness; suppose it refers to God. Suppose one of the I’s, the first one, is actually another Name for God. What I’m saying is that we know God has many names. The list is probably endless.

 

“But perhaps there was a Name for God that until last night neither you nor anyone else had ever known before. Suppose one of God’s Names is: ‘I, Anochi. Now the verse reads, ‘Surely God was in this place, but by the Name, I Anochi, i did not know.’ Do you understand me?” The author of the Zohar’s eyes were wide open, “God’s Name is I, Anochi!”

 

“Oh, God! Whispered Jacob. “That means that God and I both call ourselves by the same name. And (the logic was simple) if God’s Name is I (Anochi), then God must also have a Self.” His mind felt like it suddenly had turned itself inside out.

 

How important is it to think of God having a “self?” Is that what scripture might mean, when in Genesis it says we are created in the divine image? If God has a self, is it possible to know God personally? Is this perhaps the goal of mysticism?

 

Pages 134 – 135 Assuming the waves could speak, what should they say to the ocean? Perhaps the most meaningful noise they could make would be the rhythmic, relentless whisper they make as they rise and fall, come in and out of being. Surely that is a worthy prayer. . . .

 

You might say that we have only two options: We can recite the words, acknowledge that we are all waves of the same sea, made of the same stuff, creatures of the same Creator, or we can be too busy to make the words, recite the prayer, offer the service.

 

We can on occasion, to select another analogy, choose to be aware of the barely audible noise made by the involuntary emptying and filling of our lungs, this noise by which we live. Or we can ignore and take it for granted. The only casualty is our own awareness, our sense of life.

 

Prayers run in two directions, for the ocean also speaks to the waves. But since the waves are already part of the ocean, there sound is, in some sense, the sound of their source speaking to them. They are the mouth of the ocean, and their prayer is the way the sea has of speaking to itself.

 

Have you ever had the sense of hearing other than yourself, when you have stopped to listen in prayer? Do you ever sensed God’s presence in worship in the organized liturgy? What is your favorite part of worship?

 

I am and Do Not Covet         

 

Page 139 – 141: As the first utterance begins with “I,” so the last commandment concludes with “your neighbor,” thereby completing the spectrum from me to you, one to another, I to thou. . . .Nevertheless, according to at least Rabbi Yakum, “One who violates the tenth commandment violates them all,” even the first!

 

The first utterance and the last commandment may be joined to one another because they are simply difference sides of the same truth. They are each the cause of the other. Something like this is suggested by Rabbi Michal of Zolotchov who intuits that “not to covet” is not a commandment but a reward.

 

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. . . or anything that is your neighbor’s. How is it possible to command someone concerning a mental state which has not external manifestations? . . . “You shall not covet,” is not so much a command as the Divine assurance of a reward. . . .

 

If you are content with your portion, you will want nothing and will lack nothing. You will be like the One who spoke, “I am.” It does not mean that you will not, or ought not change and grow; it means only at this moment, in this place you are all that you can be. . . . Right now we can only be who we are. We are simply all that we can be. . . . To utter the “I am” is to want nothing else and, strange though it sounds, to want nothing else is the necessary prerequisite for all genuine growth. . . Growth must begin with self-acceptance; change begins with not trying to change.

 

Do you see how spiritual growth and change is a sort of paradox? Do you see the relationship between self-acceptance and not coveting? Do you see how letting go of desire (Buddhism) is the beginning of change? How do you think it works out accepting that I am overweight before I can lose weight?

 

Self-Acceptance and Change

 

Page 141 – 142: You cannot become someone other than who you are until you know who you are. And you cannot know who you are until you accept who you are right now and in this place. For the time is now, and not some other time; and the place is here, and not somewhere else. And you are who are, not anyone else. . .

It is a paradox. Change begins by not trying to change. And what you imagine you must do in order to change yourself is often the very force that keeps you as you precisely the way you are. How else can you explain the years and decades of your own foiled plans for growth and broken resolutions. . .   And if you could remain still long enough here, now, in this very place, you would discover who you are. And by discovering who you are, you would at last be free to discover who you yet also might be.

 

Can see any ways in which your attempts at self-improvement have actually blocked possibilities for growth? When Kushner talks about being “still” here and now, what do you imagine he is suggesting? Have you ever experienced “self-discovery” in prayer or meditation?

 

Page 143: God’s “I am” has the psychotheological force not of dissolving individual selves but of reminding us that we never were independent in the first place. . .

 

The layers of pretense and self-delusion fall away, leaving now instead the innermost essence that knows its origin and destiny. This at last is a self that knows its place among other selves, perhaps not “I am,” but “i am.” This “i” is the dynamic force behind personal change. Who are we? Really? Not the public personae, nor the images, nor the professions, nor the apologies. Not the past, for that can only produce pride or guilt. Not the future, for that can only produce hope or fear. The first utterance is in the present. All that is said is the personal pronoun in the first person singular form: “Anochi, I.”

 

How does this passage help you understand the difference between “I” and “i.” Can you see how learning to be in the present helps us to find ourselves? Have you ever tried to live in the past? How does that work? Have you tried living in the future? How does that work?

 

Self-Awareness

 

Page 149: One of my high school students once asked me if I could prove there was a God. Instead I asked her if she had a self. She thought for a moment and said, “Of course/”

“And is yourself important to you?”

“Very,” she replied.

“And where would you be,” I pushed, “without your self?”

“In big trouble.”

“Can you prove you have one?”

She smiled, “I get what you mean.”

 

Spirituality

 

The essence of spirituality is a return to the self, a redirection of vision of the one who asks the question, an almost serendipitous discovery that what is sought is, and has always been, right here all along. “It,” in other words, is never somewhere else. Could this stubborn insistence that God has no body whatsoever be another way of keeping this primary and holy truth alive? If God has no body, then God is nowhere. And I need go nowhere.

 

Can you prove you have a self? If something as important as our “self” cannot be seen, or heard, or touched or tasted, is it possible there are other intangible realities? Is it possible that the prohibition against creating images of God is pointing us in the direction of intangible reality?

 

Page 150: Spirituality is always in reference to two “I”s, two selves. The “i” of the person and the “I” of the Universe. It is religion in a personal mode, religion from the point of view of the “i” of yourself and from the point of view of the ”I” of the Universe. Spirituality is not about someone else or even about yourself in some cool, self-reflective, objective manner; nor is it about the past or the future. It is personal and immediate. Spirituality is the presence of God. And only rarely – once in a generation or even less — is the presence of God accompanied by a heavenly chorus or light beaming out of the recipient’s facial apertures. Most of the time that presence is very quiet, so quiet it can be drowned out by the slightest noise or lost to the slightest distraction. Indeed, God’s presence already permeates all creation. We name it when we are born with our first cry and whisper it as we die with our last breath. It wants only to be made tangible through our hands.

 

We are agents, instruments of God’s presence. We are not at odds with the Self of the Universe; we are part of it. And to be aware of this is to give our lives ultimate meaning and purpose. To realize that we are servants, through everything that we do, with or without our consent, is to be able to do anything; it is our empowerment and fulfillment. Spirituality is a dimension of living where we are aware of God’s presence. It is being concerned with how what we do affects God and how what God does affects us.

 

Once again in this passage we have the I and the i. The I waits to be made tangible by the hands of the i. Are you ready for such responsibility? Is this how you understand spirituality? Much that passes today for “spirituality” is about “feeling good.” Do you think there is an intersection between God’s presence and “feeling good?” Do you ever find the expectation that God’s presence will be accompanied by “special affects” or miraculous manifestations a distraction?

 

The Modes of Devekut

 

Page 152 – 153. . . . three forms of devekut that precisely correspond to . . . three kinds of religious personalities. . . . first come personality then comes theology. , , Aristotelian devekut. . . cognitive devekut. In this form of union, during the act of cognition the knower and the known become one. This is a description of the experience of the loss of self by a personality who is cerebral, rational, linear, left-brain dominant. Someone we today might call a head person.

 

A second mode of devekut is the devekut of behavior. In this experience, one seeks to . . . help God through specific actions. . . If one becomes a servant of God, then his or her deed is also God’s action. By repairing things here, we repair them above. A personality drawn to such cleaving to God is action-oriented, a doer, an achiever, a fixer, someone who wants to repair the world. If the first personality is a head person, the second would be a hands person.

 

The third form of devekut is the devekut of prayer. Concerned with reuniting the soul with its root, the focus of this third personality is neither cerebral nor behavioral but emotional. Such a soul is drawn to closing his eyes, losing herself in song, sitting in silence. I would call such a one a heart person. And thus for each type of religious personality (or different aspects of the same person) becoming one with God finds its unique expression.

 

We don’t want just to read about what God wants. We don’t want someone else telling us what God wants either. We don’t even want God telling us what God wants. We want our eyes to be God’s eyes so that we can see the world the way God sees it. . . Devekut: being one with God. At last the “little i, Anochi” and the Great I, Anochi, or All creation” are one.

 

Of the three types of devekut described by Kushner, which is most like you? Can you think of different times when you have experienced all of the types of devekut? Can you imagine or have experienced any other modes of devekut in union with God?

 

Hands of God, Eyes of Father

 

Page 166 – 167: Not long ago, while giving some lectures in a faraway city, my hosts lodged me at a nearby inn situated in the middle of a restored antique village. . . I stopped in front of one after another, (building) remembering my father, sad that we could not share the sight. And then it came to me. Since he no longer had physical eyes, I would have to look at each building with special care and twice as long, for from now on I would have to see the world for both of us.

 

Perhaps it is the same way with human beings and God. God’s eyes are not our eyes. God’s ears are now our ears. And God’s hands are ours. It is up to us, what God will see and hear, up to us, what God will do. Look at the world, you are seeing with God’s eyes. Look at your hands, they are the hands of God.

 

Have you ever experienced serving as an extension of a parent or grandparent’s life? Have you ever felt close to a friend or relative who is now dead? How far apart do you feel are the past members of the community and the present members of the community? If you were the hands of God, what would you be doing?

 

Eye of the Text

 

Page 181: It is not Jacob who says, “God was in this place and I, i did not know.” It is you who are reaching these words. You are the sacred text itself. The holy text is not about you. You are not even “in” it. You are it.

 

Do you get it?

 

 

 

 

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