From your lips to God’s ears to our hearts

Appearing in “The Jewish Journal” August 20, 2018

A man was lamenting to me the troubles in the world. When I invited him to join the effort to spread harmony, love, support of Israel and less gun violence, he responded “From your lips to God’s ears.”

While I am sure he did not put much thought into this comment, his response reflects a futile reliance on a deity to solve our problems, reminiscent of a helpless child who takes no responsibility for his actions and looks to adults to take care of everything.

For many people in this post-Holocaust age, this concept of a caring, intervening God went up in smoke in the ashes of Auschwitz and was buried in the killing fields of Babi Yar.

Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, wrote a fictional play called “The Trial of God,” in which God was put on trial for permitting a pogrom in Europe, which wiped out all but one member of the Jewish community. Although God was found guilty of ignoring his people in their hour of need, ironically, the members of the court prayed to God after the trial was over. The play does not indicate the punishment for this crime, but it appears that in the face of such atrocities, many Jews today have found God guilty of crimes against humanity, and have executed him, or sentenced him for eternity to solitary confinement. In either case, their verdict renders God inaccessible and unavailable to them and unfit to live among us.

Perhaps such a harsh judgment against God is unfair and is really a case of “mistaken identity” as the defendant never really existed at all. Science and reason strongly suggest that the notion of an external deity in control of everything is an illusion, and the true source of all existence is a transcendent creative power within everything in the universe, including each of us, not external to it. If so, God is not responsible for genocide, it is the fault of the perpetrators, and their accomplices who looked the other way. As for other bad things that happen, this is just the way the universe is constructed, and since no one is pulling the strings, according to “string theory” no one is to blame for some of life’s ills.

As the concept of God has evolved, so has our notion of prayer. For the rational believer, prayer is no longer a desperate attempt to solicit the support of a deity to save us from ourselves, but rather reflects the collective will of our people to work together to create the world dreamed of by our prophets. If we permit the concept of God to evolve, like the rest of creation, then perhaps God can survive in a scientifically literate world to include the power of love, hope and change that resides in each n’shamah, has sustained our people through long centuries of exile and persecution and fills us with hope on the High Holy Days.

With this evolved understanding, the seemingly innocuous comment “From your lips to God’s ears” takes on powerful new meaning and signifies that we must not just pay lip service to Jewish ideals, and turn a deaf ear to suffering, but rather our lips must become the voice for Jewish ideals, our ears must hear the cry of a planet and its inhabitants, and our hearts must share concern for those in distress. The Shema, the watchword of the Jewish faith, urges us to “hear” and be sensitive to suffering, so that we can be a source of healing and tikkun olam (repair of the world). Such an attitude confirms the truth of the adage “God helps those who help themselves.”

If the response to each act of violence in the world is only a prayer, then we haven’t got a prayer. And God help us if our only recourse to evil is to pray to God to help us while we do nothing.

Rather, as we approach this new year, let our prayers reflect the collective will and determination of our people, to make real the vision of our prophets who saw a powerful, godly force of compassion, love and kindness within the heart of us all, and who envisioned the Jews as partners with this force in bringing about a world joyous with justice, brimming with brotherhood and shimmering with shalom.

Rabbi Barry Silver is the spiritual leader of Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor (from generation to generation) in Boynton Beach.