By Sam Glaser
I often refer to the Kotzker Rebbe’s famous quote: “Where is God? Wherever you let God in.” When we make space in our busy lives, open our hearts and limit the expanse of our egos, Godliness fills our being. It’s an automatic response to creating a vacuum; God’s omnipresence inevitably fills every available space. I have a corollary to the “where is God” question. God is wherever people are in need. The Torah is replete with countless reiterations of God looking out for the orphan and widow, God showing concern for the poor, the stranger, the desperate. The gates of heaven are never closed to tears. Need a breakthrough in your connection? First make the space in your own life for God to fill the void, then share the love with those who are needy, less fortunate, on the fringes.
Last month I was asked to lead the davening at L.A.’s famous Happy Minyan. After the spirited prayers the packed house waited for Kiddush and since this was Shabbat M’varchim, when we bless the imminent new month, a full lunch was being placed on the tables. I stayed until the end, schmoozing with friends, eating my fill and singing with the group. I noticed a certain phenomenon: those with other places to go for lunch leave within the first half hour. Then the cool cats and well-to-do trickle out soon thereafter. The people that are left are the simple folk, the holy brothers and sisters that comprise the minyan’s core. Pico-Robertson is blessed with over forty shuls in the ‘hood. The Happy Minyan is the place of refuge for Jews of all stripes who don’t quite fit the mold in the other places, including those who can’t contribute financially, have been through a recent divorce, are handicapped or psychologically challenged, or even homeless. And that is why the Happy Minyan is the holiest minyan in town.
Think of the holiest things you have ever done. I would bet that the list doesn’t include banquets and High Holiday services. It’s more likely that your divine connection was maximized while helping a special needs kid with homework, working in a soup kitchen, visiting the sick. I can think of a few instances where I stayed up all night with friends in the emergency room. Or when I prayed for my wife when she was having a difficult labor with our firstborn. One moment that stands out is the time when I was filling up my gas tank on a cold Los Angeles night. Yes, we get a few of them a year. A tall, black woman in a threadbare dress asked to wash my windows. They didn’t need washing but I gladly gave her a few bucks to do her thing. After all, giving someone the chance to work for income is a higher form of charity. When I returned home I told my wife about what had happened and how sad I felt that she was out there on such a cold night. My wife’s response was unflinching: “then bring her a jacket!” D’oh! Such a revelation! I grabbed a down trench coat and drove back to the gas station. Seeing the smile on this lovely woman’s face when I gave her my jacket was a holy moment I will never forget.
In my twenties I didn’t have much connection with organized Judaism. I showed up at my parent’s house for an occasional Friday night dinner but that was the extent of my commitment and I must admit I was drawn home by my mom’s delicious meals. Perhaps because I am a songwriter and cannotproperly explain where all these melodies come from, I have always intuited God’s presence and love. But at that point in my life I had no vehicle to “return the favor,” to enhance the connection. Then one day I discovered Jewish Big Brothers. I remember seeing a Big Brother brochure with the picture of a friend of mine on the cover. I thought, “If Phil could do that, I can too!” One thing is for sure…I’m a big kid at heart with a lot of love to share. I may not have had piles of cash to give but I did have time. After a six month vetting process I became a “Big” and got matched with an adorable eleven year old who is still my best friend twenty years later.
In concert I introduce my Unbreakable Soul song by stating that the same God that redeemed us from slavery in Egypt arranged the circumstances for us to become slaves in the first place. I give two primary reasons: In order to become God’s chosen people, the Jews needed to experience personally what it means to be persecuted so that we empathize with the plight of others. Often when the Torah advises us to look out for the strangers among us it’s within the framework of the Egypt experience, “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” In Egypt we connected deeply to the lesson that in life one must choose between servitude to human beings and servitude to the Creator of the Universe. Take your pick…there’s no gray area. We already had experienced the humiliation of serving the Pharaoh, so serving our Creator who loves us with an infinite love was the natural choice. The other reason that I mention in the introduction to Unbreakable Soul is the fact that surviving Egypt gave us a certain resilient streak in our spiritual DNA. We learned never to give up, never to lose faith, to cling to our connection with God and the Torah at all costs. God established from time immemorial that we use that stubborn quality to broadcast God’s presence and jump to the aid of our fellow man regardless of the consequences.
I’d like to offer a few biblical “proofs” for the importance of serving God through caring for God’s less fortunate. One is with Avraham sitting at the entrance of his tent just after his circumcision. A brit milah is hard on an eight-day-old infant. Imagine a self-induced bris on a ninety year old! And yet we learn that Avraham was out there in the heat of the hottest day of the year waiting earnestly for guests whom he could serve. While he waited, God appeared to him in order to “visit the sick” and Avraham was enraptured in divine communication. Suddenly the angels, disguised as travelers, appeared. Amazingly, Avraham interrupted his blissful Godly revelation to greet them. One might think it was a tremendous chutzpah to put God on “hold.” According to my friend David Sacks, Avraham was DEEPENING the conversation with God by serving the guests. This story clarifies that the deepest connection with God is when we act as God’s hands, doing holy work to make this world a kinder, more peaceful place.
Another clear-cut example of this precept is the jarring juxtaposition of the Torah portions Yitro and Mishpatim. Yitro is perhaps the most cinematic, pyrotechnic parsha in the book. Smoke, fire, earthquakes, shofar blasts and the single most remarkable milestone in human history: the gift of the Torah to the several million Jews assembled at Mt. Sinai. Then the text takes a seeming left turn into the Mishpatim chapters, which outline an array of no less than fifty-three laws pertaining to the maintenance of a just society. In other words, in Judaism there is no distinction between one’s “religious” life and how one conducts business. Awe and wonder sit side by side with day-to-day details. Don’t think for a second that you can work hard, study Torah, get honored at your synagogue and also mistreat your employees, fudge your taxes and ignore the pain and suffering of the homeless in your community. In fact, true service of God lies in the details of our everyday life.
Jews are unanimous about few things. One of them is Yom Kippur. Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch and Kirk Douglas wouldn’t eat. We are guaranteed that spending the day fasting with a contrite heart results in a complete spiritual whitewashing of our tarnished soul. But our sages also assure us that there is no penance on this day for sins committed towards our fellow man. The only way out of the guilt is to make an accounting of whomever you may have wronged and to actively apologize for the misdeed. It’s as if God is saying: “Just take care of each other…I can handle myself just fine.”
One caveat before I conclude: our sages require that we keep our lives in balance. We can’t seek all our holy moments wandering the streets looking for those in need. Concern for the environment, working in soup kitchens and giving blood is only half the story. Yes, tikkun olam (healing the world) is a primary goal for our people. But there is a formula to achieve it that is crucial. Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that the world stands on three things, Torah study, service/prayer to God and acts of loving-kindness. Without service to God you have a learned, kind-hearted individual who knows the insights of Torah but doesn’t apply them in his or her life, much like an ivory tower academic. Without Torah, you have a great connection with God and God’s people but no idea how to live on the divine pathway, no concept of the transcendent power of the exacting performance of mitzvot. And finally, without loving-kindness you have a learned individual who shows up regularly to the synagogue but is too preoccupied with lofty thoughts to say hello or smile to passersby.
God has given us a world with enormous problems so that we can have a sense of partnership. The highest use of the gift of our free choice is choosing to help our fellow man. If we remember to focus on the journey rather than the goal, we’ll see the trials along the way as sacred opportunities. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Nachum Braverman, recommends that the best way to jumpstart a romantic relationship is to give repeatedly and even unreasonably to the other person. Similarly, if you are feeling down, just give to others and your self-esteem will rally. And if you are feeling sinful or neglectful of your relationship with God or just need an injection of holiness in your life, just find someone less fortunate or a worthy organization and give. Where is God? Not only wherever we let God in, but also wherever we pass it on. May we open a space in our hearts so that we are flooded with heavenly inspiration, and may we take that holy illumination and shine as a light unto nations.