God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Q: Forty years ago I took a course on what happened to be my last week in the convent after 11 years living in that life. The course was titled “The Exodus Experience in the Consciousness of Christ.” During the one-week class we were assigned to journal on our life experience. My exodus reality was so profound that I transitioned from depression into mania. Do you have an opinion on the relationship of Scripture to one’s personal life?

— from J via emailA: The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “In each man we can see all of man.” I agree. Our individual life experiences are more similar than different. Our life lessons are more consistent than different. The lessons each of us can learn from all of us are one of the main reasons I feel the power of God’s word in the Bible. Of course we cannot live the lives Moses or Jesus lived, but we can live a life that takes in their love and their lessons.

The biblical stories like the Exodus from Egypt that produced your transformation are not, I believe, just stories about old dead people who knew God in some old dead way. The Exodus is a story about each and every liberation in each and every time, in each and every person. In Hebrew the name for Egypt is mitzraim, and the root meaning of that name is meitzar, a narrow slot canyon between two high walls. Egypt/mitzraim is thus every place where we are hemmed in, every place where spirits and hopes are squeezed. Leaving Egypt is thus not just leaving an oppressive place but leaving an oppressive state of mind. The wandering in the desert is a true story but also a true symbol of the way we struggle to find our blessings and our path.

I think that it is precisely for this reason, that the Exodus story is not time-bound, that the Bible records God’s command to tell our children that the story of the Exodus is told “because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8). Now obviously we did not leave Egypt, and yet we are obligated to teach the story as if we did.

You left Egypt, and so did I. I pray that after you have finished wandering you will find your own special land flowing with milk and honey and that there you will finally be free.

Q: We live in a results-driven world, where key-performance indicators, revenue projections and human-capital performance is required. Yet, when I spend time daily in prayer, I regularly ask for protection for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and others, hopeful that they all are safe. In my professional life, I expect results, and when they are not achieved I am disappointed and seek to resolve the issue. Should I expect results from prayer? My heart tells me to live by faith, my head says these are the goals.

— D from Gainesville, FloridaA: I tell kids that God is not a gumball machine and our prayers are not coins we put in to get a gumball. In fact, most prayers are not petitionary at all. Prayers in which we apologize for our sins, prayers in which we express our awe and wonder at the beauty of nature and prayers in which we offer thanks to God for blessings already bestowed upon us — all these do not require that God produce some tangible result just because you asked for it.

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Why not try to focus your prayers not on how you can change God’s will, but how you can change your own will so that you are just a bit more grateful and just a bit less needful. Start with my most quoted saying: Meister Eckhart, the medieval Christian mystic, taught, “If the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it will be enough.” You say that your heart tells you to live by faith. Follow your heart and you will never be confused.