These words were first spoken to the prophet Elijah. God is not found in the grand and majestic, the awesome and even terrible. God is instead found in the quiet, in the ordinary, in the unexpected. God is found in what we must strain to hear. Each of us holds on to a thread found within our tradition. And this verse continues to serve as my thread.
These words also form the concluding words of this week’s Haftarah. The connection between the Torah and Haftarah is clear. Our Torah portion begins by recounting the deeds of Pinhas who was so zealous in his faith in God that he killed a fellow Israelite who had sexual relations with a Midianite woman. It is a harrowing story. Elijah is, as well, given to violence. He slaughters 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
This summer we again studied with Israel Knohl, the chair of Hebrew University’s Bible department. He began his lecture by reading from the words of Mohammad Atta (y”s). He offered this as a modern illustration that monotheism is given to such violence. Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps too often, their worshippers. Monotheism is ruthless. It was a harrowing lesson.
The Torah portion reports that Pinhas was rewarded for his zealousness. “It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God.” (Numbers 25:13) Yet I still offer the ancient priests’ words when blessing a bar/bat mitzvah student, a wedding couple or a newborn baby. I bless my own children each and every Shabbat with these words. Likewise it is the people’s response to Elijah’s actions with which we conclude our Yom Kippur prayers. “The Lord alone is our God! The Lord alone is our God!” (I Kings 18:39)
Each of us must hold on to a thread of our tradition. Too often we discard others. Every summer I return to Jerusalem in order to confront those threads that I toss aside. With good reason one might respond. Yet the faith of the Shalom Hartman Institute and in particular its founder and my rabbi, David Hartman, is that the tapestry will not unravel if I pull and tug on these other threads. Too often we hold on to a single thread as if it were a heavy anchor line.
We say, this alone is my faith. We refuse to look at other threads. We believe, that our faith is only our own story. It is only this verse. The other day we met with a leader of Ateret HaKohanim, a group that helps buy property to settle Jews in the Old City’s Moslem Quarter. He argued that Jews should be allowed to live in each and every corner of the land of Israel and in particular the city of Jerusalem. He offered threads from our tradition as proof for his position. Some of my colleagues argued with him, offering different threads, expertly citing texts from rabbinic writings that supported their positions. Neither side convinced the other. Everyone holds on to his thread as if it were an anchor line that can hold a weighty ship in place.
There is in fact no such heavy line. All are mere threads. Israel Knohl teaches that the Bible is a divine symphony. Its many different voices are threaded together. The faith that I renew here is not the attachment to this or that thread but instead the belief that each and every idea must be challenged. Every accepted answer must be questioned. It is exhausting to be sure, but I return believing that we are stronger for it. I have learned from my teachers a courage that the tapestry will never unravel even if I tug and pull at this thread or another.
This year we do not read the Haftarah describing Elijah’s deeds. Because this coming Shabbat falls a few days after the 17th of Tammuz, the day that recounts the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem, we read instead the words of the prophet Jeremiah. This prophet proclaims to a broken people and a destroyed Jerusalem: “Surely, futility comes from the hills,/Confusion from the mountains./Only through the Lord our God/Is there deliverance for Israel.” (Jeremiah 3:22)
Despite the brokenness standing before him, the prophet’s faith can never unravel. That is my faith as well. My faith is this alone. The tapestry can never be unraveled.