Today at the JCC fitness center I overheard a couple of people talking when one said to the other, “well, God made you different, huh.” I thought to myself, indeed, God made us all different! There’s a wonderful midrash (yes, I think of midrashim at the gym. Be glad you’re not me) that compares God to a king. While a king puts his image on coins and they all look the same, God puts the divine image on all of us, and we’re all profoundly different from one another.
It is through those differences that we find meaning, for different perspectives and experiences challenge us to be more creative, more thoughtful, more compassionate. Because I don’t know what it means to suffer in homelessness, I cannot naturally sympathize. But I am forced—obligated—to recognize my lack of experience and say to the other, ‘how can I help’. So it is in the study of Torah: the tradition is to study in pairs, with both individuals defending their interpretation of the text as vigorously as possible—often as energetically as possible (we Jews do like to argue)—but always remembering that we are both created in the image of the living God. And so it is with prayer. There is a reason we pray with a quorum of 10; the ideal is not for the service to be performed at the front of the room to an attentive (or inattentive) audience, but rather a polyphony of voices—all different, all engaging with and responding to the liturgy differently, all singing the same words.
The question, to paraphrase Harold Kushner from his presentation at the CCAR conference, is not to convince ourselves that we believe in God, to be so assured of our answer that questions, challenges, diversity all become meaningless. Rather the question is: how do we recognize when we encounter God? And to quote Rabbi Kushner further:
When you are forgiven, you have the experience of encountering God who Forgives.
When you couldn’t do something and then you can, that is encountering God who allows us to grow.
That first day when you’re not sick after being sick, encountering God who is rofei cholei yisrael: the healer of Israel.
When we take on a challenge: discovering how strong you are. God is Hanotain l’yaef koach: who gives strength to the weak.
And when we encounter one another and challenge each other respectfully, God is she’asani betzelem Elohim: the one who creates me—and all of us with our myriad differences and experiences and abilities—in the image of God. May it be so, as we receive the Torah, as we affirm our confirmands, as we move forward. Amen.