Last week, Andrea and I spent time in the northernmost portions of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the air is clean, the water clear, and the sky a deep blue. There is something about life at the water’s edge that causes one to reflect upon the wonders of nature and the magnificence of the Earth. Walking each morning along the shoreline and looking out over the horizon, I am humbled by the abundant beauty of the world in which we live. This is especially so where vast expanses of water meld into cloud formations that line the borders of the universe. From here, I become temporarily transported into another place and time, far from the hustle of everyday life. The country’s political divisions are muted, economic concerns set aside, the pressures of life momentarily forgotten.
The Canadian geese are at home as they congregate along the sandy beach, unhurried and content to let time pass slowly as the trees sway quietly in a late August breeze. The sun reflects off the lake’s surface as mild waves calmly swish to shore. A small boat anchored near the coastline rocks silently as the undercurrents of Lake Michigan gently caress its underside. I feel the presence of God on these walks, alone in my thoughts; the peacefulness of the universe fills me with awe.
It is times like these when I find myself revisiting the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, exploring once again his writings on God, religion, and the human quest for understanding. Heschel is uniquely capable of describing the ineffable. His words have a way of touching the soul and connecting God and man and nature. Although concerned primarily with issues of justice and compassion, Heschel spoke also of the mysterious wonder of God’s universe; the feelings of awe and “radical amazement” that help us gain a deeper perception of the divine. “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder,” he wrote. “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.”
Heschel turned religious assumptions upside down. He spoke not of humanity’s search for God, but of God’s search for man. The purpose of religion is to help us respond to God’s need for humanity, God’s challenge for us to heal and repair the world, to live at peace with one another, to lead lives of love and compassion. “The Almighty has not created the universe," he said, "that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition.”
Heschel wrote often about God, prayer, and the nature of human life, topics to which everyone, of all religious faiths, could relate. He did not waste time trying to prove the existence of God, but instead explored how we can cultivate our inner lives to become aware of God’s purpose for the human experience. His words were ecumenical in nature and resonated widely as he sought to unite rather than divide people of diverse backgrounds. To Heschel, “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive” of humanity’s callousness and indifference. “Prayer must never be a citadel for selfish concerns but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight.”
Heschel’s writings combine a universal sense of spirituality with humility and respect for the divine. He taught that God has a stake in the life of every human being and that “God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.”
He understood also the importance of the Sabbath; to renew the soul and find sustenance one day a week. To help us survive the materialism and spiritual degradation of modern society, a concept diminished not only among Jews but Christians as well. “Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, we must fight for inner liberty” to remain independent and liberated from the material world. “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.” Although I have never committed to its practice, I am conceptually drawn to the notion of the Sabbath as a day to reflect, study, and pray. The world would be a calmer, more fulfilling place if more people of faith practiced the Sabbath as envisioned by Heschel.
Even in a country as “religious” as the United States, the true notion of the Sabbath is mostly a relic of the past. Like Heschel, I struggle with the failures of religion in human life. Too often, instead of ennobling humanity in its search for answers to life’s ultimate questions, religious institutions are confined to creeds, rituals, dogmas, and their institutional advancement. Heschel expounded upon this in a series of lectures he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1960, published in an essay entitled “Depth Theology” in The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967):
[T]here is an inherent weakness of religion not to take offense at the segregation of God, to forget that the true sanctuary has no walls. Religion has often suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself, to seclude the holy, to become parochial, self-indulgent, self-seeking; as if the task were not to ennoble human nature, but to enhance the power and beauty of its institutions or to enlarge the body of doctrines. It has often done more to canonize prejudices than to wrestle for truth; to petrify the sacred than to sanctify the secular.Heschel taught we must strive to see the world from God’s perspective; to give voice to those who suffer in silence, fight injustice, and emulate God’s compassion for human beings. He recognized the limitations of language to convey what is essentially unique, the mystery of faith and humanity’s response to God. The religious institution loses its way when “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit.” Among the most vital dimensions of religion, often missed “because of its imponderable nature . . . is that which goes on within the person: the innerness of religion. Vague and often indecipherable, it is the heart of religious existence.”
Walking along the shores of Lake Michigan last week helped me to reawaken my sense of awe and wonder, to ponder the essence of God and nature. Upon returning to Philadelphia and confronting the reality of everyday existence, I am forced to examine life anew, to see the divine in my fellow human beings and to perceive the world through the eyes of God. It is comforting to know that we are not alone. Although incapable of complete understanding, I am reminded of God’s presence in nature, in humanity, and in the messy reality of life on Earth. As Heschel reminds us, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”