Is God in the Rock?

The summer after I enrolled in Cantorial School, I thought that it would be a good idea to get some experience working at a summer camp, so I called the camp of my own childhood, Camp Tel Noar, in Hampstead, NH, and asked if there were any openings for an educator or songleader. I was told that they were fully staffed, but I was encouraged to come visit for a Shabbat. Then, tragedy struck and the person who was to be the Director of Jewish Life and Learning died of a massive heart attack right before Passover. A few weeks later, my phone rang and I was asked if I was still interested in working at camp.

I should tell you that, at this point in my experience as a Jewish educator, I had one year of teaching 7th grade under my belt. I had not yet taken even the introductory Models of Teaching course. But, my enthusiasm outpaced my experience and I accepted the position. It was quite a challenge – I taught twenty-nine classes a week, in addition to leading Friday night, Saturday morning, and Havdalah services. I worked six days a week and put in long hours, staying up late to develop lesson plans that the campers could relate to and would find meaningful and engaging and fun – after all, it was camp!

Recently, I was sitting with a student, and I was reminded of one of my favorite lessons from that summer. She also goes to Tel Noar and we were reminiscing about different areas around the camp, including one called the cove, a secluded area at the waterfront filled with rocks and a small beach. I shared with her that I had written a lesson about how we use words to describe people that assign metaphoric characteristics. For example, we might say that someone is hard or soft or warm or cold. Of course, we are not talking about texture or temperature, we use these words as a way to categorize personality traits. We also use analogies to describe people, such as “sturdy as a rock” or “happy as a clam,” even though we don’t mean that they are, literally, either of these things.

In the next part of the lesson, we talked about words in the liturgy that we use to describe God, specifically the word tzur (rock). Two of these images are צוּר יִשְׂרָאֵל (Tzur Yisrael) – rock of Israel and ה’ צוּרִי וְגֹאֲלִי (Adonai tzuri v’go-ali) – God is my rock and my redeemer. While talking about these ideas is interesting, putting them into action is where the real power of the lesson happens. So, we went off to the cove, which was full of rocks of all shapes and sizes. There, I asked each camper to pick a rock that reminded them of how they think about God.

They wandered around making their selections and I could see them being thoughtful and deliberate as they decided. Campers picked large rocks that they could stand on and said that they chose them because God supports us and lifts us up. Campers chose small rocks and talked about how God is everywhere. Some selected rocks that they thought looked old, because they thought of God as older than anything else.

And, then, the most extraordinary thing happened. And, it happened over and over with bunk and after bunk that I did this exercise with (okay, after the first time, I was able to guide the conversation). A camper chose a rock that was half exposed and half submerged in the water. When we asked why, the response was that there were aspects of God that they thought they could understand, while others were mysterious and made it hard to believe in God or to have faith.

I was chilled by the insight and by just how profound what they shared was and I was able to take that explanation and extrapolate it to rocks we could not see at all. In other words, if we could accept that there were other rocks under the water that were not visible, then could we also accept that, even though we can’t see God, we can believe that God is there?

For those of us who are skeptical about God, this metaphor provides such a beautiful and elegant image. The idea that we don’t have to see something to know that it’s there opens up possibilities for a theology that can be more accepting, even in the face of lacking evidence. We can stop looking for proof and start trusting that we don’t have to know everything. It is the core of faith and can be very freeing.

At this season of the year, as we observe the High Holidays, we are reminded of many aspects of God. Our liturgy is full of imagery, such as in Avinu, Malkeinu (Our Father [Parent], Our King [Ruler]), in the Shalosh Esrei Middot (the thirteen attributes of God) which characterize God as forgiving and merciful and in the Untaneh Tokef (we shall ascribe holiness to this day) prayer which asks “who shall live and who shall die?” and presents God as judge. With the increased formality of the services and the bimah (pulpit) set-up to accommodate the larger congregation, it can be hard to identify with the way God is portrayed. As we take time to pause and reflect, I wonder if it might be helpful to ponder your own ideas of God and ask yourself “what would my rock look like?”

From my family to you, may you have a sweet and happy New Year. May it be a year of health and joy that brings you closer to each other and yourselves.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah / Have a sweet and happy new year,

Cantor Jeri Robins

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