November 15, 2007
Be like God
I've always been fascinated by how words -- even great, powerful words -- can evaporate. We talk about the power of words and ideas to change people's lives, but in reality we so easily forget them and move on with our lives.
I can't tell you how many times I'll hear a "life-changing" sermon, be blown away by it, share it with friends, resolve to internalize the message and make it a part of me, and then, a few weeks or months later, realize that its message has simply vanished from my consciousness, replaced by another fascinating new idea that I've just heard, say, this morning.
Maybe it's human nature. There's just so much we can expect from intangible things like words -- even inspirational, soul-awakening words delivered with conviction. The words themselves might thrill us in the moment, but that's a long way from changing the way we go about our lives.
The problem is that Judaism is all about changing the way we go about our lives -- and our wisdom is conveyed through words. But if those words have trouble "sticking," then what good are they?
Well, the other day I was lunching at Shilos with someone who thinks he has a solution.
He's even written a book about it. It's called "God's To-Do List." The author, Dr. Ron Wolfson, one of the shining lights of the Conservative movement, thinks that a huge dose of simple, practical advice can transform Judaism's words of wisdom into action for everyday life.
As I heard him go on at lunch about ideas like writing down a "to-do list for God" every morning, I couldn't help thinking about a former advertising client in the weight-loss industry. The problem was that their customers would be really motivated while they met each week with their "weight loss consultants," but would lose that motivation when they went back to their daily lives.
It turns out that what those customers needed more than anything was simple reminders -- even silly little stickers and refrigerator magnets -- to keep the message from "evaporating."
So maybe Wolfson is onto something.
You hear him talk, and it's like listening to a time-management consultant, not a professor at American Jewish University, which is what he is. Compile. Keep track. Make lists. Itemize. Put these two notes in your wallet. Look in the mirror. Revisit, revise, refresh. If you get stuck, read this, and so on. This is Judaism?
This is a professor who understands reality.
He also understands that people love and need relationships -- that we are more apt to change our ways if we have a "partner." And being a passionate and observant Jew, he understands that in God, we have the ultimate partner.
We are created in God's image; we are His partners in creation; and we can change our lives if we can learn to actively emulate Him, and not just passively obey Him.
As he explains it, God creates, so we ought to create. God clothes the naked, God visits the sick, God comforts the mourner, God attends the bride, God buries the dead, God does all kinds of good things, and we, as God's partners, can create a better world by figuring out personal ways to imitate His goodness.
By establishing this divine premise, Wolfson has distinguished his book from the sterile world of self-help that also overflows with practical ways to "transform your life."
But while this focus on emulating God adds a touch of holiness to the practical, it also presents a complication.
You see, oddly enough, what stuck with me from our lunch was one irritating question that, awash in our good vibes, neither one of us wanted to linger on: What about all the "bad" things that God "does?" Are we supposed to imitate those, too?
Wolfson is one of the most upbeat and positive people you will ever meet, and it was clear that he believes in the value of focusing on the good: in ourselves, in those around us -- and in God.
But I've been digging deep to find a satisfactory answer for why I should emulate a God that has "allowed" some pretty horrible things to happen (along with all the good). It's one thing to obey, fear, challenge and wrestle with God, and even to forgive Him; it's another level of intimacy to actually emulate Him.
As it turns out, I found something in Wolfson's book that suggests an answer. He says insurance companies give God a bad rap when they call disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes "acts of God." He thinks they should be called "acts of nature."
In that spirit, then, should we call disasters like the Holocaust "acts of man," and assume that such horrors could never be on an all-powerful God's "to-do list"?
Could it be as simple as the idea that God -- by giving us a world full of wonders and an instructional manual for how to make it even better -- has done His share, and now it's our turn? That God's gift of life, nature and Torah is so enormous and miraculous that we should cut Him some slack and look only for His goodness to emulate -- and attribute any "bad stuff" to His wayward children's misuse of their God-given free will?
In other words, that, despite all the bad that we see, "God is all goodness, and the rest is up to us?"
Wolfson's book doesn't elaborate on this, but as I see it, this explanation would make it easier for many of us to follow his 103 ways of emulating the goodness of God.
Now if I can only find a little sticker or refrigerator magnet to help me remember it.