Sign In Forgot Password

Godly Positioning System - Rosh Hashanah 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In the Torah portions that we read over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, people hear God speaking to them in a variety of difficult situations. Heartbroken at Sarah’s demand that he kick Hagar and Ishmael out of their home, Abraham hears God instructing him to do what Sarah says.  Out in the wilderness, afraid her son is about to die, Hagar hears the reassuring voice of a divine messenger, telling her that she and her son will be fine. And in tomorrow’s reading, Abraham hears God commanding him to take his remaining son, Isaac, and offer him as a sacrifice.  On the verge of doing just that, he then hears another godly voice, this one telling him to stop.

These Torah stories raise a very fundamental question.  Which voices, internal or external, should we listen to?  How do we know which impulses to follow, in moments of conflict, of crisis, of scarcity and doubt?  How do we discern what is a godly voice, and what is just the opposite?  What, if anything, is there to help guide us in difficult moments?

About 15 years ago, I heard a teacher on a meditation retreat share a story about a man in Germany who had an early GPS system in his car. He and his wife were driving along and started noticing people outside waving their arms and shouting at them.  The man ignored them and kept driving.  He then ignored some flashing red lights, and the next thing they knew, he had driven into a river.  Apparently, the car’s navigation system thought that there was a bridge where, in fact, there was only a ferry.

More recently, I had my own version of this experience when Gina and I were spending a month in Spain.  We rented a car for an overnight excursion to Grenada, and on the way back, we visited the small town where the poet Federico Garcia Lorca was born.  We had used the GPS in the rental car to find the Lorca museum, and so I turned it on when it was time to head home. Pretty soon I realized that the GPS was taking me down a different road than the one we had come in on.  It was clear that in this small town, there could only be one road to and from the main highway. But despite my misgivings, I listened to the reassuring British female voice issuing from the GPS, and I followed its instructions, right to the end of a gravel road in a field.

The question, of course, is why is it so easy to follow instructions that are so obviously wrong?  Why did that German man and I ignore the evidence of our own eyes and ears, our common sense?   Like Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, how do I know if indeed it is a Godly voice which is trying to give me directions?

In my exploration of non-human metaphors for the divine, I’ve been thinking about God as a kind of GPS – I call It the Godly Positioning System.  I do believe  that there is Something in this universe that has helped me in my life, that has led me here, Zooming to you, in this moment.  It’s a subtle sort of guide; at no point have I had an experience of a disembodied voice insistently telling me which way to turn.  But I do feel that Something beyond my own limited awareness has helped me take the steps I have needed to take.  And thankfully, so far, I have not yet been guided into the spiritual equivalent of a river or an empty field.

To investigate the metaphor of the Godly Positioning System, I had to learn how the GPS apps on our phones and in our cars actually work. It turns out that they rely on three things:

  • satellite signals which determine our location;
  • mapping software that tells us which roads go from here to there; and
  • traffic data that influences which routes will be suggested.

Taken together, this technology does a remarkable job of helping us get from point A to point B, even with the occasional glitches.  And each of these three components of a GPS-based navigational system has something to teach us about how the divine can manifest in our lives.

The first component is location.  GPS is made possible by over 30 satellites orbiting the Earth, which constantly send out signals that are read by our devices down here. Once the receiver in the device has calculated its distance from at least four satellites, it can accurately locate itself (and the person holding it).  So, if a Godly Positioning System is to be effective in our lives, we need to begin by figuring out where we are.

Interestingly, the very first question in the Torah, in the story of creation of human beings, is one of positioning.  Right after they have eaten the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hide.  God then asks them, “Ayeka—Where are you?”

This isn’t really a question about physical location; presumably the Source of Creation knows where the humans are hiding. The “where” of God’s question has more to do with spiritual and ethical location.  God may be asking, “Where do you humans now fit in the scheme of Creation, having taken on this ability to choose between good and evil?”

This positioning, vis-à-vis God, comes up in significant moments in the life journeys of other Biblical characters.  Abraham and Moses answer God’s call by saying Hineni – “Here I am.”  Again, this is not a matter of physical location, but a statement about emotional and spiritual presence.  I am ready, the characters are saying, for what will be asked of me.  I am ready to become who I need to be.  “Where are you?” is really a question of “who are you?”

As I think about my own life journey, I see an ongoing process of figuring out who I am and where I am located.  For example, in my younger years, I had an intuition that, while I didn’t want to be a boy, I was pretty lousy at being a girl.  By second grade I had stopped wearing skirts and dresses.  I preferred GI Joes to dolls, and I had no interest in ballet or Girl Scouts.  While I was able to hang out equally well with boys and girls, I found that the received wisdom about what those two categories meant didn’t seem to apply to me.

While I had no language for it then, somehow as a child I had managed to locate myself outside of the gender binary that defined the world around me.  And while I experienced confusion and sometimes pain because of this, in retrospect the experience of claiming a space that was particularly “Toba,” outside of others’ assumptions and definitions, was a very important part of my spiritual development. I intuitively learned that what the world tells us about ourselves is not necessarily true. I also learned to question some of society’s norms and assumptions, which I have found quite useful as an adult who would like the world to look much different than it currently does.

One of our most basic spiritual tasks is to foster an  awareness of who we really are, a sense of our “location” vis-à-vis everyone around us. It’s a process of saying Hineni, I am here, both to ourselves and to others.  It can be challenging to locate ourselves outside of the expectations and the categories that the world hands us.  The Godly Positioning System is That which teaches us to trust our own sense of ourselves. We can experience this divine GPS internally, in our innate sense of who we are, and we can also experience it externally,. in the wholesome messages we receive from the people around us, those loving voices that affirm our humanity and our unique gifts.

And of course, our location is not static. As we discover new facets of who we are and who we want to be, we can continue to ask ourselves that Godly question: “Where am I?”

The second component of GPS is the mapping software.  I think of this as the Jewish texts and traditions that are my inheritance, as well as the spiritual practices from other traditions that have helped me on my journey.  Like mapping software, Judaism and other religious traditions lay out a variety of paths we can take to spiritual fulfillment and ethical living. We don’t all need to take exactly the same road. Some people may be more drawn to prayer or meditation practice, others to study of sacred text, others to taking religious teachings into the streets. The ethical teachings and ritual practices that we have inherited are intended to help us travel pathways of right-living. The spiritual task is to learn to read and understand the data in the mapping software, in order to be able to follow its instructions.

And just as with mapping software, some parts of the data can became outdated and even dangerously incorrect. Judaism certainly has its share of texts and traditions that range from ignorant to actively harmful. I think of these as old roads that go nowhere.  They must now be either entirely removed from our mapping data, or changed enough so that we can get where we need to go without running ourselves or anyone else off the road. We can reconstruct the maps as we go along, to better align with the actual world we are navigating today. But we still need the maps; we can’t figure out the journey all on our own.

The final component of our Godly Positioning System is the data we receive from other travelers.  This is the real-time information about crashes and back-ups, potholes and road work.  Here, the divine is manifest in community, in all those travelling along with us. We both contribute information and receive it, in this aspect of the divine GPS.  As I learn from my mistakes, I can share my learning.  As I observe others stumble, I can take note and try to avoid that particular obstacle.  All of our input is needed to make our collective journey successful.

I am drawn to this metaphor of the Godly Positioning System because we are living in such profoundly destabilizing, disorienting times.  It can be really hard to know what to do, day by day, minute by minute.  I think we all long for some steady voice, issuing out of our mind’s dashboard, telling us exactly when and where to turn.  And while I don’t think such an authoritative voice exists, I do believe we can learn to trust the divine GPS.  We always have available to us these things:  our ability to locate ourselves; spiritual teachings both ancient and new to guide us; and community to accompany us on the journey.

It can be very stabilizing to claim my own location, to connect to the essential, unique core of my humanity, my neshama tehora, the pure soul within me that I bless every single morning.  By remembering this about myself and about every single person I encounter, I can re-ground myself in a sense of shared humanity, beyond the tidal wave of negativity and despair that’s out there. Whatever is happening around us, we each have the ability to say Hineni, “I am here,” this is who I am.  This body, this heart, this spirit, right here.

To locate ourselves, to answer the question Ayeka - “Where are you?” in a helpful way, we need to make time and space to connect with our own hearts, with our deepest sense of who we are.  What are my foundational values?  What is true for me in this moment?  Am I where I want to be, or is a new location calling to me?  We have  the gift of these Ten Days of Teshuvah, of Turning, to do some of this work, to pray or meditate or take long walks or have conversations with friends to help remind us of who we want to be, of who we are at our very core, and to make any recalculations of our direction that we need to make.

The second component of the system, the mapping software, is also a gift to us.  The people who created our holy texts and our foundational Jewish spiritual practices did not live in easy times.  They knew brutality and disease; they lived through wars and plagues and all of the individual human tragedies we encounter. From those experiences, and from their own connection to the Godly Positioning System, our ancestors created a complex set of maps for our spiritual journeys.  In more recent times, those maps have gotten updated by feminist Jews and queer Jews and all the people remaking Judaism in their own precious image.  In addition, there are so many powerful teachings that been made available to us by teachers from other traditions. We can access an incredible treasure trove of texts and practices to help us on our way.

So I invite you, over these ten days, to think about your own personal mapping software.  What might you want to explore in the year to come?  What disciplines, what practices, might you look into or delve into more deeply, for the sake of your own spirit, and those around you?  I really believe that in order to make it through the coming months and years,  we all need to take on a commitment to both spiritual and ethical practices. These are disciplines that can help us foster patience, compassion, and wisdom; that will help us manage our fears and sustain us in the bleakest moments.

This is really why we are here, why Dorshei Tzedek exists, why I do this job: to help us all find the mapping software that works for each of us.  As you think about where you want to get to, let’s be in conversation about the maps, the teachings and practices, that are available to help you get there.

And finally, we have one another.  We can look at everyone on this road with us as useful sources of input, whose experiences can help us on our own journeys.  The Godly Postioning System is manifest in a group of people striving to transform themselves and the world around them.

 

As I think about the work that we have taken on as a community at Dorshei Tzedek, whether dealing with money and economic class as a kind of Torah, or exploring what it means to be a truly caring community, or attempting to honor the dignity and value of every person in our congregation, or taking on the challenge of becoming actively anti-racist—in all of this I see a community on a journey.  And that journey is by necessity messy, with potholes and traffic barriers and other obstacles on the road. Like the information sent in from drivers on the road ahead, we can make the obstacles we encounter into useful data.  Being compassionate with ourselves and others, understanding that we will make mistakes and being committed to learn from, is how we help the Godly Positioning System function.

As I noted at the beginning, sometimes we get lost; sometimes GPS fails us.  This can happen for a bunch of reasons: outdated maps, or the signal getting lost between satellite and receiver.  There is so much noise out there, so much that can interfere with the sacred signals we are meant to receive.

I took a walk the other day and sat by the Charles River and looked at some trees, listening to the birds.  I thought about what is actually worthwhile to pay attention to in these tumultuous times.  Trees and birds, for sure.  Very young children.  People who smile at me when I’m out for a walk. Those are good places to start.  I am also mindful of the voices I need to hear less of, or to take in very carefully:  bad news, social media, the opinions of people who don’t necessarily know any more than I do.

And while it is difficult, it is also essential to listen to the cries of the world, to the voices of those who are suffering. But we need to have our receivers attuned to receive those signals properly. In the metaphor of God as GPS, I think of spiritual practice as that which makes me into a reliable receiver.  There is Something out there trying to send me the signals I need, and I need to be able to receive them with as little distortion as possible.  This is why I work really hard to foster compassion for myself and others; why I cultivate as best I can humility, and clarity, and other wholesome qualities of mind and heart.  So that I can perceive clearly, and respond helpfully.  It’s not just about the quality of the data I am able to take in; it’s how I understand and respond to it.

So as we enter this new year, a year that will, like every year, hold both suffering and joy, both catastrophe and blessing, I hope we can all find the Godly Positioning System that works for each of us individually, and as a community.  May we pay attention to the signals telling us the best paths to take, and which to avoid.  And, should the voices we listen to take us down a road into an empty field, may we have a sense of humor about it, and figure out our way back with as little damage as possible.  And may we take strength in knowing that none of us has to navigate our way forward alone.   L’shanah tovah.

 

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah 5781

Sun, July 21 2024 15 Tammuz 5784