Every time we say the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, we read the phrase familiar to many of us: “Elokeinu v’Elokei Avoteinu – Our God and the God of our Fathers (or, Ancestors).” Implicit in this simple phrase is one of the great beauties of the Jewish spiritual tradition and one of the great challenges of Jewish education.
The phrase “our God” implies that each of us has a relationship with God that is personal and relevant to us in our time. And this same God is the God with whom our ancestors had a relationship, relevant to them in their time. At its best, this juxtaposition connects us in a deep and meaningful way with those who have come before us by virtue of our shared relationship with something transcendent, timeless, larger than ourselves. At its most challenging, this juxtaposition explains why a belief in God is so challenging for so many of us. When we feel obligated simply to continue or replicate the experiences of those who came before us, we can encounter a very real gap that exists between them and us, their time and ours. When the only language or framework for Jewish theology or spirituality is that of our ancestors, God can become inaccessible to us. For many, this causes us to check out of the very possibility of “Elokeinu” – of making their God my God.
The opening of this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and, in particular, one of Rashi’s commentaries, offers a beautiful insight into Jewish spirituality that helps to address this challenge. “And God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but in My name “the Lord” I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6:1-3) Rashi explains this last line as follows: (God says:) “My quality of trustworthiness, which the name ‘the Lord’ represents, was not known to them (your ancestors) because while I promised them (to bring them to the Land of Israel), I did not fulfill my promise (during their lifetime).”
This is radical. According to this, God had unfinished business with our ancestors, who never knew God in all of God’s fullness because they never experienced the playing out of history. To put it differently, we who are living out the unfolding story of Jewish history are also living out the unfolding relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is the opposite of trying to replicate or sustain their relationship with God. On the contrary, when we make the relationship our own, we contribute to God’s evolving relationship with the Jewish People and the world as they are today.
When we make God Elokeinu, our God, we keep alive Elokei Avoteinu, their God. This is a great spiritual opportunity, an invitation to write new chapters in the literal and spiritual story of our people.
Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School, Gann Academy