Many of us have very close friends who live in another town whom we don’t talk to enough, we don’t see enough. One of my dearest friends, my closest rabbinical friend, is Rabbi Elliot Salo Schoenberg. Elliot is the Associate Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical organization of Conservative rabbis. He has a job that requires a lot of travel, and I’m pretty busy, and so we talk once in a while, certainly not enough, but we’re there for each other in the special good times and the stressful bad times. When we do talk or visit, it’s never during the week; it’s on a Sunday night or during the summer or during a vacation.
Which made it strange when one Monday afternoon, out of nowhere, with nothing on my mind and no news to report; I took my cell phone and selected his cell phone number from my contact list. It didn’t make any sense; I should have called him at the Rabbinical Assembly office where he would be. And it didn’t make any sense that I would call him in the middle of a workday. I was surprised, however, that a different man answered, someone at a corporation, so I said “Sorry, wrong number,” and I hung up. I checked to see if I had called the right selection on my cell phone list and I had. It didn’t make any sense, but I didn’t think about it. I didn’t call his office instead. I didn’t worry about it.
Later that day, when I was near a computer, I checked my e-mail, and there was something that shook me terribly, like I was in a nightmare, that Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg had suffered a major heart attack on a plane flying to Argentina and that the plane had been re-routed to Panama. I called his office and my friends there told me it was bad. I had a mental block and forgot his home number; I called information and got it and put that in my cell phone list after that number I’d tried earlier. I called his kids and they said he was ok, the plane had landed in Panama City and they had rushed him to the hospital and put a stent in a major artery and he was stable. They said that their mother Cathy was on a plane going to Panama and that they couldn’t reach her until she got there. I started to calm down. They said that their mother would have e-mail by the next day and I could try that. I e-mailed her over the next couple of days and she reported that he was getting better by the minute.
A couple of days later I thought I’d talk to the kids again so I dialed what I thought was the home number only to find Cathy talking to me. “Where are you?’ I asked, very confused, “are you home?”
“No,” she said, “I’m here in Panama with Elliot, and he’d love to talk to you.” And Elliot got on and told me the whole story, how he’d been sitting on a Continental Airlines plane 35,000 feet over Central America when someone dropped a fire truck on his chest. A doctor on board saved his life when his blood pressure went to zero. A stewardess who was a nurse demanded that the plane land in Panama to save his life. As soon as they landed, Elliot, on a stretcher, turned his cell phone on and gave it to the Continental Airlines representative and told him to call his wife Cathy in America to get down there as soon as possible. Elliot said to me over and over, “Continental Airlines saved my life.” And then out came the emotion. Elliot, as a runner in terrific shape, had prepared for this event for thirty-five years because his father and mother and uncles had all had major heart attacks. The doctors told him that his good physical shape saved his life. It felt to me that Elliot had saved his own life through exercise, that the stewardess and the pilot had saved his life, that the doctor in Panama had saved his life, and so on in the whole sequence. And I said something like “G-d must want you alive to put all of those people and things in place.”
I got off the phone and tried to digest it all, but something was bothering me, and I didn’t know what it was. I felt that I had missed something crucial: “How did I just call Elliot in Panama? How did I reach him? I don’t have the right number for his cell phone. I got some corporation when I dialed that number.” Memory is a funny thing, and it took me an hour to figure it out: All of a sudden, I remembered whom I had talked to on that Monday. The man had answered, “This is Jim with Continental Airlines.” I called Elliot back and told him when I had called on Monday. He said that that was exactly to the moment when he was getting off the plane and turning his cell phone on and handing it to the Continental Airlines rep.
In other words, something had made me call Elliot on his cell phone in the middle of a workday at the very moment he was getting off the plane with a major heart attack.
And then I really got it. I had been given a precious gift and I had blown it. G-d made me call Elliot at the right moment on the right number and I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why I wasn’t reaching Elliot. I could have talked to my dear friend at the worst moment of his life and I blew it. I thought I had the wrong number; I had no confidence in myself and I didn’t know that G-d was talking to me.
Let me switch to the Bible to provide a way to think about this story and about what happens to all of us in our lives. There is a wonderful story about Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who had to run away from home. He was all alone in the world and he came to a place at night and lay down. The place was called Luz, in English, L-U-Z. With a stone for a pillow, he fell asleep. And he dreamed of a ladder that reached up to Heaven, and angels were ascending and descending on a Divine escalator. And Jacob woke up and said, “Surely G-d is in this place and I didn’t know it.” And Jacob named the place Beth El, the House of G-d.
“Surely G-d is in this place and I didn’t know it.” That is one of the most precious lines in the whole Bible. It is one of the most precious lines in my life. G-d is in our lives and we don’t have the faith in ourselves to know that we really do have the right number.
Sometimes people think I have a hot line to G-d, that G-d is in my Fave Five, that my cell phone is on a family plan making free calls to G-d. This, of course, isn’t true. My prayers are no better than your prayers; my blessings are no better than yours.
But for once in my life, for once in my life, my cell phone had indeed had been turned into a hotline not to G-d but by G-d, and I lacked the faith to know it.
G-d is in our lives and we don’t know it.
So I’m thinking about the story of my cell phone call and I’m thinking about the story of Jacob at Luz.
Jacob renamed the city of Luz and called it Beth El, the House of G-d.
That means that lots of people were living at Luz before Jacob came and renamed it.
G-d was there in that place and they didn’t know it.
They were Luzers.
We are Luzers because we don’t know that G-d is in our lives.
Now once Jacob understood that G-d was in his life, he decided to build a House of G-d.
And in a second version of the story, G-d gave Jacob a new name at Beth El; He renamed him Israel.
Put these stories together and what it means to be Jewish is to connect our relationship to G-d with a House of G-d.
But more and more, Jewish people don’t do this.
It’s not that we are un-spiritual, but that we do not connect our spirituality to the synagogue.
It’s not that they don’t pray but that they don’t understand that the kind of prayer that’s done in the synagogue is a kind of prayer that relates to them.
They don’t understand that the words of the prayer book and the melodies we sing them to/ are only the outer trappings of the prayer process;
merely the mechanism by which we can pray together as a group;
merely the vehicle through which we pour our thoughts and feelings.
Prayer begins with the letter P and so do a number of related concepts:
Petition – We pray to G-d for specific outcomes. A few common examples would be that we petition G-d for the well being of the people we care about, our own good health or safety, or the ability to emerge from one of the pits of our lives.
Praise – We thank G-d for life, for the many blessings we’ve been given, for everything we have and everything we are.
Petition and praise are the two most familiar aspects of prayer that begin with P. But for me, in my life, the most important aspect of prayer that begins with P is Perspective.
When I tell you that I pray three times a day, most of you will think: ‘Well sure he’s a rabbi; that’s what those people do.’
But for me, prayer is a way of understanding every one of my days.
And sometimes, when things are tense (and I don’t know if you ever have days like this, but I admit to you that I find some days just a little complicated or tense or stressful or difficult, not, G-d forbid, because I did anything wrong, but because everyone else has messed up and I have to fix things), when things are tense, I find that perspective is the key to figuring things out.
Why do we need perspective?
Because we’re such Luzers that we don’t feel good about what we’ve done,
Because we’re so hung up on what we don’t have in terms of money or fame or power that we forget that G-d is not in money or fame or power,
Because we have no Pride in ourselves
And we walk around feeling sorry for ourselves
And angry at everyone else
We need the bigger view of our lives that prayer can give us.
I know, when I pray, that to paraphrase the famous song by Glenn Campbell
by the time I get to Ashray, I’ll be calmer
and when I do the Silent Devotion
I’ll be in motion
toward the goals I really want to reach
and by the time I reach Alenu,
I’ll say nu to those things I can’t do anything about
Prayer enriches my life with perspective
So that I know that there are good days and bad days and that together they make my life.
And if you’re sitting here on the High Holidays saying: “This is all foreign to me, who cares about prayer or spirituality?” I’m telling you that you’re wrong.
I know Jewish people who meditate, and this is fine, but I want to remind you that prayer is meditation. Why is sitting like a pretzel and humming ommmm easier than sitting and saying Shema Yisrael?
Are you going to tell me that every day of your life is so smooth, so easy, so unfettered by problems, that a little perspective or calm wouldn’t help?
If you say: “I don’t think that much about things,” I’ll respond that of course you do. You can’t help it. You may not think in philosophical terms, but you think about what’s happening in your life.
And if you say: “Why do I need prayer? Where is G-d in my life?”
I’ll answer you that for one thing, G-d is in your relationships.
G-d is involved in some of your relationships and you, you don’t know it.
G-d didn’t just give me a gift at that moment when I reached the Continental Airlines representative,
A gift that I blew
He gave me a sign not just that Elliot was in crisis
But that my relationship with Elliot mattered so much that He would give me a sign of that importance.
I’m not just saying that G-d is in our lives and we don’t know it
but also that G-d is in our relationships and we don’t know that either.
G-d is involved in these relationships
Between the lines
The connections between us are G-d.
I’ve talked many times about the philosophy of Martin Buber, who said that you can look at other people as “Its,” as things to be used or manipulated, or you can look at them as “Yous”, you can be in a relationship with them, one person to another. Buber also said that G-d is in the I-You relationship, that just as G-d was trying to highlight my relationship at a key moment, G-d is, in a sense, in that relationship.
We talk about phone lines even when the connections are not going through telephone lines at all but in space, bouncing off satellites or who knows what.
Just as those lines are invisible to the eye,
G-d is in those invisible lines connecting us to others,
maybe G-d IS those lines,
creating and furthering real relationships.
Mick Jagger sang, “Connection, I just can’t get no connection.”
But we have connections to each other and to G-d
That’s what Jacob realized when he woke up from his dream and said, “Surely G-d is in this place and I didn’t know it.” G-d was in Luz but the Luzers didn’t know it. G-d is in this place, this synagogue, and most of us don’t know it. Prayer, which so many of us disdain as irrelevant and un-meaningful, gives us the opportunity to petition for what we need, to praise and thank for what we have, and to gain perspective on everything that happens and everything we do.
By the time I get through Ashre, I’ll be calmer.
By the time I get through the Silent Devotion, I’ll be in motion towards the things I need to do.
And by the time I get through Alenu, I’ll have the wisdom to say nu to the thing that I can’t control.
G-d is in this place and we should know it.
And where else is G-d? G-d reminded me, in the most dramatic terms I can imagine, that He is in the relationship I have with my friend Elliot, and that He is in my relationships with so many of you who are sitting here right now. You might not know what there is between us after all of these years, but I do.
G-d in your relationships with your family and the people you love in this world.
You’ve got the right number; call it.