Charles Liché, before the war, was a chazzan at the synagogue des Tournelles. From the outside, this synagogue, like all the other ones in Paris, is practically impossible to distinguish from the rest of the buildings on the street. The Shuls are meant to blend with the rest of the architecture. However, when you walk in, a gigantic synagogue welcomes you, with magnificent stone walls, majestic candelabras, intricate Aron Kodesh, and red velvet on the Bima. To this day, a gabbai with white gloves, a jacket with épaulettes, and a Napoleon hat will welcome you. If you are a visitor, he will ask you right away if you are a Cohen, a Levy, or Israel, and will escort you to a seat.
During WW II, Paris found itself in the occupied zone and the German rule was that Houses of Worship had to do the prayer for the Reich during Services. Anyone caught saying the prayer for the French Republic would be sent to jail. Our young Charles Liché would hear none of that; proudly, determined and stubborn, he insisted in saying the prayer for France every Shabbat. Of course, he was caught. He was sent to a detention camp, and shortly after to Auschwitz.
Hungry, thirsty, cold in winter, he and his companions were sent to forced labor every day. When you find yourself surrounded by darkness, disease, death and despair, it is easy to lose hope. Charles Liché decided not to. Every morning, he would daven Shacharit, every afternoon, he would pray Mincha, and every night he would fervently recite the Maariv prayer. Hashkiveinu Hashem Elokeinu... Lay us down to sleep, Hashem our God, in peace...
One freezing winter morning, while waiting in line before being sent to forced labor, he was finishing his morning prayers. The man next to him became irritated: "Why are you wasting your time and energy praying? Do you see God here? When was the last time He answered your prayers?" To which Liché responded: "I pray and I still give thanks, because you see, I was thirsty, but I opened my mouth and it was filled with snow that quenched my thirst. I keep on praying because I believe it makes a difference. I pray, and in return, I get the strength to go on; I get the conviction that this insanity will end. I choose to see God, even here, and I know that each word of prayer brings me Light."
And so, one day, this insanity did end, and he was able to return to Paris. The synagogue des Tournelles became Sephardic, forcing him to start a minyan on the beautiful Place des Vosges. After getting his ordination, going from chazzan to rabbi, he was named "Rabbi of the Deported" and the "Synagogue de la Place des Vosges" was born. And this is the synagogue that became our spiritual home in Paris, with a rabbi who experienced no bitterness, only love and compassion.
Rabbi Charles Liché taught me to see God an entirely different way. I came to understand that "God" is just a word, and "God", as described in our culture is not necessarily the "God" I believed in.
When I hold my children and I feel love that could fill the universe, when I listen to music and a flow of emotion moves me beyond words, when I smell the ocean and feel the sun on my face, I know these experiences are beyond words. And so, God is also an experience beyond words. God is the source of love that fills my universe, God is the source of emotion that moves me beyond words. God is also behind my tears, but also behind the sun that dries them and behind the wind that keeps me moving.
So if you tell me you don't believe in "God", I will most likely agree with you. The word "God" has been terribly abused in history, and some traditions have turned religion into something un-spiritual and bland. However, over 3,500 years ago, at the foot of Mount Sinai, we heard God speaking within us; every fiber in our body and our mind resonated with the Divine. Since that moment, to speak to God and to hear God was no longer only for a few chosen. You and I heard it then, and God hasn't stopped talking to us. We only need to review a few basic skills to hear the voice again. And when we do, what we manifest is most beautiful.