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Friday, September 28, 2012

Haazinu: Why A Rock?

Not too long ago, I took a class about God led by a very imaginative rabbi. When we arrived, there were several items placed on table in the center of the room, including a bunch of wildflowers, a clock, a Bible, and a container of Elmer's Glue. He asked us: Which of these items most closely match your concept of God?

It was a provocative and intriguing task. Who would chose the flowers, believing that God was expressed in nature? Who would choose the clock, thinking of God mainly in the passage of time and the experience of different life stages and lifecycle events? Did God mainly exist for some of us in the realm of prayer, religion, and sacred texts? Or was God the glue that held us together during our darkest moments?

The most interesting result of this exercise was not what we chose, but how strongly we felt about our choices. Each of us had a specific concept of God that was expressed in one of the items on the table.

I think of these lessons and teachings around this time of year, when I discuss Haazinu, one of the last portions in the Torah, with my students. Sometimes called "The Song of Moses," this portion is part of the set of instructions that Moses offers shortly before he is to die, and includes a section written in verse that seeks to express the relationship between the Israelites and God.

The song describes God as "The Rock--whose deeds are perfect," and later "an eagle who rouses its nestlings." My students' reaction, in a word, was "Why?'

Why a rock? Why an eagle? Why compare God to anything? Why not say what God is, instead of what God is like?

The thing is, 11- and 12-year-olds, they crave concreteness and certainty, and they hate ambivalence. They live in a world of tests and grades and rules, where the answers are clear, and right and wrong are obvious. They want to know what God is. They hate that I have no answer.

So they tell me their own images of God, perceptions they've had as long as they can remember. Some cling to the age-old image of an old man with a beard. Some continue to use the pronoun "he," even while asserting that God has no gender, because God is not a person.

Then I ask them if they can find any answers in Moses' words -- "The Rock!"

And they tell me:

A rock is strong.
A rock is forever
A rock is dependable
A rock is always there.
A rock doesn't really change.
And finally... a rock is as large and unmoveable as a mountain, but also as small and portable as a pebble in your pocket.

I think they know more about God than they realize.

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