Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego
- Contact: 9001 Towne Centre Drive, San Diego 858-535-1111 www.cbisd.org
- Membership: 1200 families
- Rabbi: Michael Berk
- Age: 66
- Born: San Bernardino
- Formation: University of California-Berkeley; Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, Cincinnati
- Years Ordained: 39
San Diego Reader: What’s your favorite subject on which to preach?
Rabbi Michael Berk: I’m retiring in June and so I’ve been thinking about what I want to be my last sermon, and what seems the most important thing to me. I came up with two things. One is Israel, and the other would be the importance of strong community bonds in a society where our communities are so fractured.
SDR: Where is the strangest place you found God?
RB: The death of my three-week-old infant child, who was born with a heart that was not capable of sustaining life. Such babies are commonly known as “blue babies.” Oftentimes, they receive surgery to correct this problem and go on to live fine lives. But compounding this heart condition, our baby was born very premature. So he lived only three weeks — and it raised for me all the usual questions. Is there a God? If so, is God good? Why would God allow this to happen? Why would God create a world that would need pediatric cardiologists? If I were designing the universe, there would be no such thing – because there would never be such a thing as a baby born with a heart incapable of sustaining life. Then there are other questions: did God send this to me to make me a better person? There are people who say our travails are sent to learn from them. If I needed to become a better rabbi, though, why punish my wife like that? Why put a three-week-old infant through that? Why put that infant’s grandparents through that? Do something to me, to make me a better rabbi! Was it punishment for something my wife or I had done? Who could believe that? Those are questions I rejected – so then I began looking through the experience to see where I could find God in what happened. I learned, first, not to blame God. This is how things happen in the world, and God doesn’t control them all. I don’t mean to be corny about it, but one day my father-in-law was spotted outside the neonatal intensive care unit with binoculars, looking at his grandchild whom he would never hold. So there’s something about the power of love there we learned about. I found God there and in the support I got from my community and friends, and I learned to see God, even in those moments, and sense his presence.
SDR: Where do you go when you die?
RB: There is no question that Judaism believes in an afterlife. When we say that human beings are created in God’s image, that doesn’t mean God looks anything like me, but rather that implanted in us is a spark of holiness, a little bit of the divine, which we might call the soul. We believe the soul returns to God who gave it…. We don’t have a concept of a purgatory or a place for bad people. There is some idea that some people – Hitler for example – maybe there is a condemnation for souls like that who don’t get to go to the world to come, whatever that may be. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be so evil that they deserve eternal damnation. But we leave that in God’s hands. I don’t have a definitive answer for that.