Rabbi Sandy Sasso told the following story at Temple Emanuel in Newton:
There were two brothers in town who were always getting into mischief. One day the rabbi got a hold of the younger brother and asked him to face up to his misdeeds by asking him “where is G-d?” In an increasingly stern voice the rabbi asked the boy “where is God” three times until the young lad ran home and hid under his bed covers. When his older brother found him, he asked what his brother was hiding from. The little boy replied “G-d was missing and the rabbi thinks we did it!”
Rabbi Sasso the author of twelve books for children—many of them award winning—recently addressed the ways in which G-d is absent in children’s lives as the weekend scholar-in residence at Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Sasso, who is also a congregational rabbi in Indianapolis with her husband Dennis, tackled children’s religious imaginations and identities in sermons, talks and readings.
According to Rabbi Sasso, the vast majority of youth think there is a spiritual dimension to life, yet only 14 percent of these children feel as if someone is helping them with their spirituality. That number roughly correlates to the adult statistic in which one in five people claims that there is no assistance available when trying to cultivate a spiritual life.
Rabbi Sasso illustrated the interplay of spirituality and religion using a recent Torah portion. Moses’ revelation on Mount Nebo, in which he is profoundly changed internally as well as externally, is a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments is the religious expression of that deep and holy occurrence. Religion, explained Rabbi Sasso, serves as a “container to hold spirituality and we must learn how to connect the larger questions of life to spirituality.”
Questions lead to open conversations and according to Rabbi Sasso even very young children have the skills to engage in larger, profound inquires about the role of G-d in their lives. The difficulty in talking about G-d may lay at the feet of parents and Jewish educators. “Don’t let your own worries and misgivings stand in the way of conversations about G-d,” said Rabbi Sasso. “What you don’t believe anymore can be an effective way to allow yourself to rethink your beliefs. It’s okay to be unsure. You don’t have to have all the answers and remember that these answers are not ‘googleable’.” To that end, Rabbi Sasso advised adults to “get in touch with what awes you, or as the poet Mary Oliver says, tap into ‘appreciation swelling into astonishment.’”
Parents looking for ways to broach a conversation about G-d, particularly with younger children, would do well to read “G-d’s Paintbrush” to them. Rabbi Sasso noted that her intent in the book was “to broaden children’s creative lives when thinking about G-d.” Illustrated in rich primary colors, “God’s Paintbrush” asks the ways in which G-d is concrete and present in a child’s life.
I wonder if G-d has a big lap to curl up in, just like my Mom’s, and strong arms, just like Dad’s to lift me up and catch me when I fall.
I wonder if G-d has strong hands to hold me tight, just like Mom’s and big shoulders, just like Dad’s to carry me when I am tired.
What makes you safe and warm and loved?
Most of us grew up with the standard names and images for G-d such as King or Lord or Father, but G-d has many different names and images. For a little boy in Rabbi Sasso’s congregation, whose mother was dying of breast cancer, G-d was “Healer.” For a woman whose mother was dying G-d was a comfortable bathrobe. Later that year when the woman’s mother passed away, she felt closer to G-d by wearing her mother’s old robe. Rabbi Sasso was not advocating for jettisoning traditional prayer. She emphasized that the language of the prayer book is an important connection to community and the Jewish people at large. After all she noted, “in our tradition there are 70 names for G-d.”
Most touching for me was Rabbi Sasso’s wisdom on connecting social justice issues to a child’s spiritual coming-of-age. “You cannot have social justice in Darfur,” she said, “when a child is being isolated in school. Bullying is very much a social justice issue. Take a stand on immigration, but also welcome the new neighbor. Inclusivity is part of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world.”
We would do well to remember that as parents we are the single most important influence in our children’s lives. We don’t need to be rabbis or academics to explain G-d to our children. Rabbi Sasso recommended to start simple. State your own ideas about G-d without cluttering those ideas in abstract or philosophical language. As she pointed out, “Noah was an amateur and the builders of the Titanic were experts.”