Ki Tisa: Lookin’ For God

This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) Ki Tisa opens with a continuation of the process of building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the various items that were used in the Mishkan (Shemot/Exodus 30:11-31:11). In the midst of this, Bnai Yisrael (the Israelites) commit the Chait of the Egel Hazahav, the Sin of the Golden Calf (Shemot 32-33). Picture the scene: Moshe (Moses) is still up on Mount Sinai and Bnai Yisrael can not wait for him to come back with the Torah and the Luchot (the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, more correctly called Aseret Hadibrot or The Ten Statements). They decide to build a Golden Calf to worship. Moshe comes down from Mount Sinai, sees what is happening, is outraged and throws the Luchot on the ground, smashing them into pieces.

After experiencing all of the Nisim (Miracles) of Yitsiat Mitzrayim (The Exodus from Egypt) and the revelation of God at Mount Sinai in the midst of building the Mishkan, How could Bnai Yisrael build and worship an idol? How could Moshe throw down the Luchot? No matter how horrible the sin, how could Moshe justify throwing down and smashing the Luchot, the Holy Tablets from God?

According to Rashi on the Talmud in Shabbat 87a, if the people could engage in idol worship, they could not be given the Luchot. The Avot dRabbi Nattan 2:3 is even more specific and says that God commanded Moshe to smash the Luchot. Why?

Perhaps God, through Moshe, is making a statement about the pursuit of spirituality. It is very easy, when engaged in the religious experience, to get caught up in the physical. In other words, after beginning the process of building the Mishkan, they became obsessed with the material aspect of the Mishkan and lost sight of the fact that the only purpose to erecting the Mishkan was to have a place to get closer to God. They were so consumed with building God’s house that they lost interest in waiting to receive and read God’s words, God’s ideas, the Torah and the Luchot. Their intense focus with building degraded itself into the constructing and worshiping of the Egel Hazahav.

This phenomenon was not just a problem during the times of the Torah. Even today, people in Synagogues become so enamored with the building; they forget why that building was constructed–to get closer to God. It is almost as if people are looking for God in the physical nature of the Synagogue.

It reminds me of a fascinating story in Melachim 1 (Kings 1) Chapter 19:11-12 “… And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke into pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” In other words, God seems to be saying that people look for me in the great and powerful acts of nature, larger than life events, some might say miracles. However, God says, no, that is not where I am. Where is God? In the “still small voice.” Perhaps the “still small voice” is God’s words, God’s ideas.

In turn this reminds me of that old Country song, “Lookin’ For Love.” The song goes “I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. “Let us substitute “Lookin’ for Love”, with Lookin’ For God. Obviously, God is everywhere, so there can be no wrong place to look for God. However, when we become obsessed with the physical nature of our Synagogues, we are looking for God in very limited places. Worse than that, we risk the possibility of turning our love of the architectural nature of our Synagogues into idol worship.

This can happen not only with the physical building, but with many elements of Synagogue life that have little to do with spirituality and yet that becomes the be all and end all of some people’s Synagogue experience. Such people love going to Board or Committee meetings and social events. However, Tefilah (Prayer), Talmud Torah (The Study of Torah) and Tikune Olam (kind acts to fix this broken world) hold little interest for them.

To be sure, Judaism is a holistic experience; it should not be limited to prayer. We should strive to make the architecture, meetings, and social experiences of a Synagogue spiritual as well. Nonetheless, when we only engage in the more material nature of Synagogues, we can miss out on the entire religious experience of a Synagogue. Further more, if Tefilah, Talmud Torah and Tikune Olam are not the building blocks of Synagogues, the odds are very low that architecture, meetings, and social experiences will be infused with spirituality.

Now if someone does not believe in God, and their connection to Judaism is cultural, but they play out their cultural connection through Synagogue life, I think it is logical that the spiritual aspects of a Synagogue have little value to them. However, my sense is, that many people are looking for God in Synagogues and they are simply not finding God. Worse yet, many times they are not being offered the opportunity.

Ram Dass was a spiritual teacher in the United States who is known as the person who brought Hindu thought to America in the 1960’s. Ram Dass was born and raised Jewish; his original name was Richard Alpert (The same name as a fictional character played by Nestor Carbonell on ABC television series “Lost.” Clearly the Producers of “Lost” were making a statement by choosing the original name of Ram Dass). A number of years ago, Ram Dass’s father died. He joined his mother to sit Shiva with her. The experience of Shiva no longer had meaning to Ram Dass, but he wanted to be with his mother and mourn for his father in the way his father would want this experience to take place. The Rabbi of her mother’s Synagogue came by and Ram Dass had a wonderful conversation with the Rabbi about God and Jewish Spirituality. As the conversation went on, Ram Dass started to think to himself that if he knew all of this was in Judaism, he would have never left. At this point, Ram Dass turned to the Rabbi and said, “Rabbi, tell me, do you have these types of conversations, with your congregants, in Synagogue?” The Rabbi responded, “No, God forbid.”

This to me is the central problem with some Synagogues. There are all types of experiences going on, social, political, and communal. By and large positive experiences. Yet some Synagogues have little room for God and spirituality in their institution.

I bless you all that we look for God in all the right places and that we help to make our Synagogues, the right places.

This week’s title “Lookin’ For God” comes from the song “Lookin’ for Love.” “Lookin’ For Love” is a song written by Bob Morrison, Patti Ryan and Wanda Mallette. It was recorded by Country music singer Johnny Lee. The song was on the soundtrack of the movie, Urban Cowboy. The single was released on June 30, 1980. The B Side was “Lyin’ Eyes” by Eagles.”Lookin’ for Love” was Number 1 for three weeks on the Billboard magazine Hot Country Singles chart, and Number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 “Lookin’ for Love” was certified gold for sales of 1 million units by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Wanda Mallette, a second grade teacher, was trying to come up with an idea for a song. She thought of the title, “Lookin’ For Love In All The Wrong Places” based on observing her students (the songs title was eventually shortened). Wanda and Patti Ryan worked on the song together and sent a rough recording on a cassette tape to Bob Morrison, who was a well established songwriter in Nashville. Morrison did some work on the song and made a new demo in his home. This resulted in another demo done in the studio. It was then pitched throughout Nashville. It was sent to Paramount Studios after 21 rejections in Nashville. It was then sent as part of a whole box of songs to Country singer Johnny Lee. Johnny Lee was supposed to select one song to sing for the movie “Urban Cowboy.” Johnny Lee could not believe that he did not write the song when he heard it for the first time. He felt that it was the story of his life. John Travolta who stared in “Urban Cowboy” heard the song and felt that it was his favorite song ever. He also felt that it was the story of his life. The writers of the song did not expect the song to be released as a single. After the movie was in theaters, public reaction was so strong, that the song was used as the movie’s theme and it became a single.

To watch and listen to Johnny Lee performing, “Lookin’ For Love” click HERE.