A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 9.2.22

September 2, 2022



Elizabeth Ann

Said to her Nan:

“Please will you tell me how God began?

Somebody must have made God. So

Who could it be, ’cos I want to know?”

And nurse said, “Well!

And Ann said, “Well?

I know you know, and I wish you’d tell.”

And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,

“Now then, darling, it’s time for bed.”


Elizabeth Ann

Had a wonderful plan:

She would run round the world till she found a man

Who knew exactly how God began.

She got up early, she dressed, and ran

Trying to find an Important Man.

She ran to London and knocked at the door

Of the Lord High Doodelum’s coach-and-four.

“Please, sir (if there’s anyone in),

However-and-ever did God begin?”


But out of the window, large and red,

Came the Lord High Coachman’s face instead.

And the Lord High Coachman laughed and said:

“Well, what put that in your quaint little head?”


Elizabeth Ann went home again

And took her favourite doll Jennifer Jane

“Jenniferjane,” said Elizabeth Ann,

“Tell me at once how God began.”

And Jane, who didn’t much care for speaking,

Replied in her usual way, by squeaking.


What did it mean? Well, to be quite candid,

I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.

Elizabeth Ann said softly, “Oh!

Thank you, Jennifer. Now I know.”


– A.A. Milne (revised)


Continuing my theme of whimsical, if not profound, poetry (see my piece from two weeks ago), this offering from A. A. Milne (the author of Winnie-the-Pooh) seems like a wonderful jumping-off point for talking about God. Now that we are one week into the month of Elul, and in a few short weeks we will be confronted with many hours of liturgy and scripture, we would do well to reflect on the God of the High Holy Day machzor.


The problem is that that is by no means a straightforward proposition. In the High Holy Day machzor, God is sometimes portrayed as a God of most tender love, and sometimes as a God of harsh judgement. Sometimes, like terrified penitents, we pray desperately to appease a God whom we believe we have offended; at other times, we are like children tugging on God’s proverbial robes, appealing to God’s inherent sense of compassion and lovingkindness. In the main part of the Musaf service for Rosh Hashana, we begin (in the Malchiyot section) by addressing God as King – the Almighty, Untouchable King of All the World. Immediately afterwards, in the Zichronot section, God becomes the merciful God of memory – God remembers all the righteous deeds of our ancestors and, we hope, treats us leniently and generously.


In the classic piyyut (liturgical poem) V’chol Ma’aminim, God is “the One who recalls kindly those who utter God’s name… the One who allots life to all the living… the One who acts kindly with both the good and evil.” But only pages before that, in the Unetaneh Tokef, we are confronted with a God of Truth, “Judge and Accuser, Knowing One and Witness, writing and sealing, counting, numbering, remembering all forgotten things…” (i.e., all the bad things you’ve done!). That’s some scary stuff.


So which is it? Which version of God are we to walk in with, and which will we carry away with us? Our tradition is adept at recognizing the discrepancies. Think of the vital High Holy Day prayer Avinu Malkeinu. The title means (literally) Our Father, Our King. This formula for addressing God acknowledges two vastly different images of God. One is of a loving parent, someone we can appeal to when we’re in trouble, someone who will love us unconditionally, someone who will do everything to keep us out of trouble. The other is of a distant, unreachable Sovereign, who will enact justice on us according to the law, without favor, without regard for our individual circumstances. To the Ruler, we are subjects. To the parent, we are children.


So which idea of God are we supposed to think of on the High Holy Days? Perhaps, as with Elizabeth Ann (the little girl in our poem) the answer is “none of the above.” In her case, she couldn’t get an external answer to her God question, but she ends up satisfied nonetheless. Is it because there was a secret, divinely inspired communication from the Almighty? Is it that she understood from her doll’s squeak that the only answer to such questions is “no answer?” Or, in that moment, did she come to some understanding that gave her peace?


In the spirit of preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, I urge us all to begin asking questions. How am I to understand God? Who is this God that I am praying to? What does God expect of me, if anything? What do I expect of God? What does it mean to reflect Godly values? Do I need to believe in God to do that? And if so, which version of God? Each of us needs to answer these questions for ourselves – no one else can do it. Your choices are by no means limited to the menu that’s presented to you in the High Holy Day machzor. And I daresay that it’s the journey, and not the destination, that will be rewarding in this case; most of us never get to a satisfactory answer, but the process of wrestling with God questions can greatly enrich the time we spend in the pews on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.


What does it mean? Well, to be quite candid,

I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.


Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.


Rabbi Sam Levine