Why ‘Ten Paths to God’?
‘Seek God where He is to be found, call Him when He is close.’ The Sages were puzzled by this verse. When is God not close? Surely God is everywhere. Their answer was profound. God is always close to us, but we are not always close to God.
At some point in life, every reflective human being will ask three fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?
Whether we believe, or don’t believe, these are religious questions. Science can tell us how life began, but it can never tell us what life is for. Anthropology can tell us the many ways in which people have lived, but it can never tell us how we should live. Economics and business studies can tell us how to generate wealth, but they cannot tell us what to do with the wealth we have made.
The various sciences, natural, social or human, can tell us how, but not why. The ‘why’ questions ask us to lift up our eyes beyond the immediate, in search of the ultimate. The name we give to the ultimate ultimate is God. The search for meaning at its heart is a religious quest.
God is always close to us, but we are not always close to God. How then do we come close to Him? By living Jewishly. ‘We will do, then we will understand’, said our ancestors at Mount Sinai. So it is in all matters of the soul. We learn to love music by listening to music. We learn to be generous by performing acts of generosity. ‘The heart follows the deed’. Don’t expect to have faith or find God by waiting for Him to find us. We have to begin the journey. Then God meets us halfway.
There are many ways of finding God, many paths to the Divine presence. For this series of videos and accompanying curriculum, I have chosen ten of the most important. The first is identity. We are born into a family that has a history. Who are we? To which story do we belong?
The second is prayer, the most focused way in which we reach out to God. Third is study, the highest of all Jewish acts, which the Sages said was more holy even than prayer. Fourth is mitzvot, the way of the commands. In prayer we find God by speaking; in study we find God in listening; in mitzvot we find God by doing.
Then come the three great attributes of the Jewish personality: tzedakah, love as justice; chessed, love as compassion; and faith, love as loyalty. Judaism is a religion of love, not the mystical, otherworldly love that hovers above the world, leaving its imperfections intact, but the love that engages with the world, trying – one act at a time, one day at a time, one life at a time – to make it a little less cruel, a little more human and humane.
Then, lastly, come the three great expressions of Jewish life: Israel, the one place on earth where Jews have the chance to do what every other nation takes for granted, namely the right to rule ourselves and create a society in accordance with our beliefs; Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name in the world by acting as God’s ambassadors; and lastly responsibility, the idea that we are God’s partners in the work of creation, and there is work for each of us to do in this tense and troubled age.
Any of these units may be the starting point of a personal meditation, framed by such questions as: How does this apply to me? How can I act on it to become a better person? How can this help me to lead a more meaningful and fulfilled life? Some may not speak to you, others will. For there are as many ways to the Divine presence as there are Jews, said Rav Nachman of Bratslav. Or as I put it: Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.
There are many ways to God. Where we begin doesn’t matter, so long as we begin. Jewish life is the circumference of a circle at whose centre is God. That is where we meet, whatever our starting point.
However long we live, life is short, too short. Every day matters. Every day in which we do not do some good deed, take some step toward God, make some difference to the world, is a day lost – and our days on earth are too few to waste even one.
Welcome to ‘Ten Paths to God’, a new 10-unit curriculum on Judaism and Jewish identity based on a combination of traditional sources and the teachings of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
‘Ten Days, Ten Ways’
In 2007, as Chief Rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth, Rabbi Sacks produced a booklet called Ten Days, Ten Ways designed to inspire and engage Jews, whatever their previous educational or religious background, during the High Holy Day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
This booklet was divided into ten sections, each one a classic Jewish path to God. Each section included an opening piece written by Rabbi Sacks, followed by a range of diverse passages from ancient, medieval and modern sources, including further extracts from many texts written by Rabbi Sacks.
The booklet was well-received as a timely focus around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the feeling was that there were ways it could have even greater impact.
‘Why I am a Jew’
Rabbi Sacks stepped down from the Chief Rabbinate in September 2013, and since then has continued to be a significant and growing presence across the Jewish world and beyond.
Part of this is due to a commitment to experimenting and utilizing the various online and social media platforms to help broadcast his teachings to a global audience.
In September 2015, Rabbi Sacks and his small team released a whiteboard animation video called ‘Why I am a Jew’. Based on an extract from his powerful book A Letter in the Scroll (published as Radical Then, Radical Now in Great Britain), this video went viral, being shown in schools, synagogues, campuses, Jewish organisations, and even some churches!
The video presented an inspiring and accessible approach to Judaism and Jewish identity in a creative and engaging way. Following the overwhelmingly positive response to the video, Rabbi Sacks’ team heard the desire for more detailed and sophisticated educational material to delve deeper into some of the concepts and issues raised in the whiteboard animation.