Honor mystery in life to know what God asks of us, David A. Ingber says

Rabbi David A. Ingber was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and for a while was ultra-Orthodox. 

“I am now the rabbi of a congregation that meets in a Presbyterian Church. There is yoga and meditation, and in my sermons I quote from Buddhists, the Kabbalah and Christian mystics,” he said. “People ask me, ‘What is your denomination? Orthodox?’ No, I am paradox, paradox and questions.”

Inger preached at the 9:15 a.m. Monday, Aug. 1 ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. His theme was “Mystery,” and the Scripture reading was Deuteronomy 10:12.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the founder of Hasidic Judaism, Baal Shem Tov, said there were two types of questions. The first are questions for which you know the answer but you just haven’t yet figured it out. The second are questions you don’t know and will never know. 

“I ask my congregation: What is the most important day in the Jewish calendar?” Ingber said. “Some people say Kol Nidre, the making of vows to God before the Day of Atonement. Then some people say Passover.”

Ingber tells them they are warm. 

“The holiest moment is not the Seder meal, but when the youngest child asks the four questions,” Ingber said. “Those questions are the center of the Seder.” 

The four questions center on why Passover is different from other nights and include: On all other nights we eat chametz or matzah, why on this night only matzah? On all other nights we eat any kind of vegetable, why on this night only maror? On all other nights we don’t dip even once, why on this night do we dip twice? On all other nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, why on this night do we all recline?

The questions begin with “ma nishtana” in Hebrew, which translates to “what is different” in English.

“Ma, ‘what,’ is central to the Jewish story,” Ingber said. “When a child asks, ‘What makes the sky blue? What is for breakfast?,’ it shows a sense of mystery in a beginner’s mind.”

Ingber studied at a Jewish day school. 

“There is not a line in the Talmud that doesn’t have ‘what’ at the core,” he said. Even on the playground during a break, he might say, “It’s a beautiful day,” and a classmate would say, “What do you mean by beautiful?” 

Questions and quests are at the heart of mystery. People meet the unknown in a quest and ask, “What is this?”

“The Israelites left Egypt, but Egypt did not leave the Israelites,” Ingber said. “When they were given nourishment in the desert, they asked, ‘What is this?’ Manna means bread of what is it. In the liminal place between Egypt and the Promised Land, the Israelites were nourished by questions about life. There were no simple answers.”

Ingber quoted the fourth letter from Rainer Maria Rilke’s book, Letters to a Young Poet:

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.”

Questions open the doors of the imagination. 

Ingber said that in Jewish mystical tradition the Hebrew word “mah” is a mystical allusion to the quality of wisdom, the power of “what.” 

“When we search for what and wait, mystery arrives,” he said. 

The heart of all science is the question of what. 

Deuteronomy 10:12 reads: “So now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” What does God require of humans but to hold God in awe and fear, in our hearts and minds? The Talmud, Ingber said, is “subversive and radical. It is a prescription of how to do all God asks of you. Mah, said the rabbis, is the source of all blessing.”

Ingber gave the congregation a brief lesson about the Hebrew language. There are no vowels in Hebrew, so each word can be read a variety of ways according to the vowels that are paired with the consonants. By adding vowels, “mah,” or “what,” becomes “meah,” which means “may I,” and “meah” becomes “mea” which means “100.” It is like a lesson on “Sesame Street,” he said. 

“We make 100 blessings everyday,” Ingber said. “Listen to the profundity; in every what, there is a blessing. Every blessing emerges from mystery.”

Scientists can reduce a what, but in theology, it is dangerous to try to reduce God. Ingber said all definitions of the divine lead to heresy. One of his rabbinical colleagues said, “When we speak about you, God, we have no words. When we speak to you, words will appear.”

All relationships have mystery at the heart of them. In the Jewish marriage ceremony, the unveiling of the bride is reminiscent of the story of Rachel and Leah. 

The couple take an oath which reminds them, “In you I see a great mystery. I will contrive to see you. We stand in mysterious relationship.” Trappist monk Thomas Merton said that God’s will is a divine mystery, and we should not think we know what it actually is. “As we look into the world, we stand before the possibility of blessing,” Ingber said.

A member of Ingber’s congregation once called him and asked him to speak to her son, Brandon. His father, her husband, was dying of cancer, and her son wanted to speak with Ingber, who had done his bar mitzvah. 

Brandon was supposed to go to college the next week, and his father was supposed to drive him. 

“Instead of going to college, I am going to be in mourning,” Brandon said. “Why do bad things happen?”

Ingber told Brandon he was not the first to ask the question, but the purpose of suffering is a mystery. 

“I told him that when I get to heaven in front of God, I am going to say, ‘Here is my question: Why do bad things happen?’ God will say, ‘Great, but what about the beauty of a flower, the glow of a sunset, all the magnificent beauty?’ ” Ingber said.

Ingber asked Brandon, “What has your father given you?”

There are some questions, some mahs, “to which we say, ‘God, we get it — sort of.’ There are mahs we will never know the answers to,” Ingber said. “The paradox is that, nonetheless, we bless. We bless light and dark, the difficult and the easy.” Say 100 blessings a day to honor the mystery, he said. Bless all and don’t stop because all is mystery. 

What does God ask of us? “To stand ready to receive the mystery of being, the what. What will you bless today? What question might you live into today? May you live into the questions as people of the what,” Ingber said.

The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, presided. Rabbi Samuel Stahl, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, led the morning prayer and read the Scripture in Hebrew and English. The prelude was Canon on “Praise the One who Breaks the Darkness,” by Benjamin Kolodziej, performed by Nicholas Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Motet Choir sang “Our Souls in Silence Wait,” music by William Bradley Roberts and text adapted from Psalm 62 and I John 4:18. The choir was conducted by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and accompanied by Stigall. The postlude was an improvisation by Stafford on the Massey Memorial Organ. Support for this week’s services is provided by the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy, the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Edmond E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund. 

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.