If you could ask God for One Thing what would it be?
Would it be wealth, health, or love?
It is not an easy question to answer.
At beginning of the New Year, I want to explore the King David’s answer to this question. What David wanted from God is more important than ever and will deepen our understanding of why we here today.
What was King David’s one thing?
His request is designed to be front and center during the entire holiday season. We read his request twice a day every day from the beginning of the month of Elul, the start of the holidays until Shemini Atzeret. His request is in Psalm 27 entitled “God is my light and my salvation”.
David asks God – There is one thing that I ask from you, one thing I request. I desire to dwell in the house of God and visit his sanctuary.
What did David want and mean?
I gained an insight about David’s request as a 22 year old college student that animates me and lives in me almost every day. I have heard many insights over the years but this one impacted me deeply and I want to share it with you.
Rabbi Israel Miller, of blessed memory, who served as the VP at YU during my college years shared with me the following. Why does David ask to both dwell and visit with God? What is the difference? Once I am living in a place, why would I want to remain a visitor?
He explained that when we live in the same place for awhile we understandably become accustomed to our environment. As an unfortunate consequence, we lose sight of the nuances in our home. We walk by the same thing over and over again and no longer pay attention to the details for they are not longer new, fresh or different.
However, when a guest visits, he or she observes little things we may over look. A guest enters and proclaims, “Wow – that is such a nice picture, a beautiful floral arrangement!” We think to ourselves, “You are right. I just did not notice…although I walk by it every day.”
David’s one thing he wanted was not only to dwell in the house of God but remain a visitor. David never wanted to lose his fresh perspective on the world around him. His one thing was to insure that no matter how routine life became, he would remain perpetually inspired. He prayed to live in state of constant wonder and amazement each and every day.
King David’s one thing was to walk this world with his eyes and heart wide open to the magic and majesty all around him.
Why is living in wonder so important? Why is it the One Thing? Why should it matter to me and you?
First, without wonder, we are often blind to the face of God in nature.
Popular culture conditions us to think of nature as a series of cinematic blockbusters: the Northern Lights, the 100-year comet, the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the sun vanish in the middle of the day. However, seeing nature as a kind of amusement arcade, worthy of note only when it dazzles, blinds us to the basic wonder of the land, sea and sky on any given day. These extraordinary events truly amaze us but there is so much more. The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
Second, without wonder, we become blind to the face of God in man. We are losing connection with humanity and in turn the very fabric of our common bonds is fraying. Our generation is suffering immensely. A buzz on our phone gives us a greater thrill than a warm smile or gesture of a friend. We are becoming more distant and in turn divisive.
We live in virtual worlds oblivious to the person in front of our eyes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this year, marking the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, Apple released its first $1,000 phone — the iPhone X. One of the major new features of the iPhone X is Face ID. All you have to do is look at the phone and it will recognize your face and unlock it. It is sad but true that our Iphones or androids spend more time with us and may know us better than a family member or friend.
However, one day this summer, Monday, August 21st, our nation embraced the One Thing. It gave me and others hope.
On the day of the solar eclipse, we renewed our relationship with God and with each other.
Our nation visited in God’s sanctuary.
First, we stopped in our tracks, in the middle of the day, on Madison Ave in the heart of New York City to the fields of South Carolina and the plains of Oregon to acknowledge that the world is not on auto pilot. We were mesmerized. I can never remember so much travel and time devoted to one act of God. Wow! We remembered that God renews creation every day. This rare event opened our eyes to the natural beauty we experience every day.
Secondly, for one day, not only the sun but politics was eclipsed. We transcended our differences to realize if only for a day, we are all created in God’s image, children of the Almighty and there is more that unites us than divides us. A childhood friend of mind posted, “I had an amazing experience watching the eclipse. I was in a parking lot in Sandy Springs with my eclipse approved glasses. A black gentleman got out of his car and I offered him a chance to view the eclipse using my glasses. A Muslim family (man, woman and 2 kids) saw me lend my glasses to him. When he gave them back to me I offered my glasses to the Muslim family. I suggested they get out of their car to view the eclipse fully. There we were...a black man, a Muslim family and a Jew sharing one pair of NASA approved sunglasses. The eclipse was super cool but eclipsing our differences was exhilarating.”
On that day, we were visitors in the house of God.
Even on August 21st itself; people began pining again for reclamation of what felt so special, real and fleeting. So many realized that If we could somehow bottle the spirit of the day, the innate joy we experienced at gazing at the Heavens, united with brothers and sisters of all walks of life, how different the world could be.
In truth, all too often, we have forgotten the One Thing. We walk the world sightless among miracles.
Life was not intended to be lived this way. Rosh Hashanah, the day marking the birth of humanity, offers a powerful reminder that we are designed to live in wonder and awe…if we would only open our eyes.
Today is a day to push back against spiritual boredom and reclaim the one thing requested by David and I believe sought by each of us.
Every human being is born to celebrate life. We were born to marvel at the world. Babies are innately curious, every touch, sound and sight generates excitement. Yet, as we grow older we lose our sense of wonder. We all want it. We yearn for it.
This reality hit home a few weeks ago when I was celebrating the birth of a young boy in our community. During the Friday night, Shalom Zachar celebration I asked the grandparents to share their hopes and dreams for their grandson. Beyond wishes of health and happiness, I was particularly moved by one of the grandfathers who said, “My hope is that my grandson always remains fascinated with life.” Wow! This was such a great blessing for it reflected the hope that his grandchild, like David, remain a visitor in God’s sanctuary.
Wonder is one of God’s greatest gifts. It deepens our joy and magnifies our gratitude. It fortifies our soul.
Wonder engenders humility to see the Divine in others. It allows us to see beyond ourselves. When we are visitors in God’s house, our spirits soar and we seek common bond even among strangers.
How do we do it? How do reclaim that one thing in our lives?
The answer is prayer. I want to explain to you how. Like many people, when I was young, I did not appreciate the role of prayer. It was a task I had to do and was taught to do but one that I rarely wanted to do. My perception of prayer was reflected in an apocryphal story about an Israeli bus driver and a rabbi who appear before God at the end of their lives.
The Rabbi is feeling quite confident that he will earn a special place in Heaven, certainly, in his mind, ahead of the irreligious bus driver. To his surprise, following the Divine deliberations, he sees that the bus driver earns a more precious share in the world to come. Deeply disturbed, he walks up to an angel and asks him to explain his unfair treatment. After all, he studied and observed Torah more than the driver. He argued, "I do not understand. I am a man of God and this bus driver did not even believe in God. "The angel responded, "Rabbi, when you taught classes or gave a sermon, some people were sleepy but when this driver got behind the wheel, everyone prayed!" We can relate to the angel. In most of our minds, the perfect prayer is heartfelt and spontaneous. When our lives are on the line, we pray. As a Rabbi, I receive countless requests in times of crisis. Yet, it seems that Judaism turns this idea on its head. If prayer is meant to be dramatic to be meaningful, why does Judaism believe in fixed prayers? We have a set liturgy and are mandated to pray morning, afternoon and night.
If anything, the routine would seem to diminish our relationship to God and not enhance it. The answer is that Judaism teaches that the most important prayers are not spontaneous but fixed. It is not best to pray only when we feel like it but we should be saying to God consistently – Thank you, Thank you and Thank you! The Sages developed an ingenious way to cultivate God’s ever presence in our lives. We cannot pray every hour of every day but we do symbolically. We are obligated to pray morning, afternoon and night.
Fixed prayer is the secret to developing an ongoing relationship with God and remaining fascinated with life and filled with gratitude. It refreshes the One Thing…it ignites wonder.
Prayer is the secret to wonder. To lead a life of awe and intimacy with God, prayer must be done every day, regularly, and tenaciously. Prayer is work and discipline but the rewards are deep and boundless. Prayer is the secret to a relationship with God.
In the morning, the very first words of our mouths are Thank You God for the life you give me. Modeh Ani. To realize the One Thing– we must thank before we think. When we awake this way, every day becomes a celebration of life. How can we not marvel at the gift?
In the middle of the day, when we are in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life…when the last thing on our minds is God… we are obligated to stop and say Thank You. It keeps us centered. It keeps us humble. It keeps us grateful.
As we lay our head to sleep, we pray. We place our trust in God and reflect on the day. As a child, when I recited the Shema at night, it gave me comfort in knowing I was not alone. It is a moment to say thank you for the gift of the day, evaluate the blessings and challenges and take stock as to how to make tomorrow even better.
Prayer may be reading and meditating on verses from the King David’s Psalms. A couple of years ago, I had an encounter with a mystic in Jerusalem. I asked him, why many people recite a daily section of Psalms. He stood up, looked me in the eyes and read the words “whoever recites the verses in Psalms taps into the spirit and soul of King David”.
He explained that more than any other human being, David experienced the valleys and peaks of life. He lost a child, his son and father –in- law wanted to kill him, he lay sick in bed for over a decade and yet he also experienced the greatest joys as King of Israel, husband, father and servant of God. In every case, he found shelter in the Divine spirit. For time immemorial, Psalms has served as a source of spiritual guidance. The words reawaken the flagging sprits of man; provide renewed strength, enlightenment and wonder. Ever since that day, I have embarked on the monthly cycle of reading the entire Book and that inspires me to stay in place of wonder, awe and hope. It gives me stability, peace and courage. It helps me stay rooted in the Divine.
Prayer not only renews our sense of God in our lives but renews my faith in humanity. When we are filled with appreciation for the Divine, we learn to see the Godly sparks around us. We see the positive in others. Our prayers inspire us to mine for the Divine and in turn forge more positive relationships. Every morning, we proclaim the words – God the soul that you implanted in me is pure. You fashioned it. You created it. You breathed life into me. It is a daily reminder that it is not only I would soul is pure, but my neighbor, my friend, a stranger or even an enemy.
We are surrounded very day by so much negative news in the media. Headlines are about natural disasters, financial wrongdoing, crime, and fears about the future. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the immediacy and accessibility of news today. Yet, we forget that it is news precisely because so much of life is good. We are trained naturally to notice something out of the ordinary. Prayer guides us to see the good.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains the benefits of prayer through a experiment conducted by teacher. She showed her students a white sheet of paper and in the center was black dot. She asked her students what they saw. Almost universally they responded, the back dot. The teacher mentioned that the dot took up less than one percent of the paper. They all missed or ignored the white sheet of paper that gave the dot its context. The teacher went on to explain that this experiment demonstrated why bad news is news and good is so rare. We are mesmerized by the black dot. It stands out because it is against the backdrop of white. Bad news being noteworthy is testimony to the fundamental goodness of the world.
Prayer helps us focus on that is good in the world. Much of prayer is not asking God for anything but saying Thank you! We give thanks for what we are and what there is. We are reminded that without the dominance of kindness we would be indifferent to cruelty. Without faithfulness, we would be unmoved by betrayal.
Faith and prayer teaches us to see what exists, not only what catches our attention. We admit there exists suffering, poverty and cruelty but what gives us strength to fight these things is knowing that this is not all there is. Evil is not the ultimate reality and in acknowledging much of the goodness in the world, a hope rises and gives birth to a dream to lift us beyond despair. Prayer enables us to see life whole and see beyond the ugly stains to realize the beauty in us and around us in nature and humankind.
God willing, this year we will merit seeing and realizing the One Thing in our lives, our families and our nation. Pray every day you will live as a visitor with renewed wonder and faith.
May we learn to not only read the headlines of creation but also the fine print: a summer tomato, a winter’s first snow, a billowing cloud in a Michelangelo sky.
May we see the goodness in humanity. Peggy Noonan , the Wall Street Journal columnist wrote so beautifully about the solar eclipse, “people spontaneously came together—shop workers and neighborhood mothers, kids and bank employees, shoppers and tourists. They’d gather in groups and look up together. There was something about it that left me by the end quite moved. Witnessing spontaneous human graciousness and joy is stirring. And we were seeing something majestic, an assertion of nature and nature’s God, together.
Perhaps this was God’s purpose in the timing of the solar eclipse. We have clearly felt strained as country. The eclipse was a powerful reminder to see the face of God in humanity. We are all children of God, infused with a spark of the Divine. We are charged with seeing the light in the world and the light in each other.
May we merit this year to experience God’s light, live in wonder every day and may we reveal His light in humanity. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.