Don’t answer until you’ve done some rigorous research.
That’s right, research: with a method, literature review, experimental design, data collection, analysis, conclusions, and proposals for future research.
Last week, I conducted a mini-study, and here is my research report.
Method: For a study of opinion, a phenomenological (experiential) method is best. Thus, I explore my subjective response to two different God concepts.
Literature review: This study explores two concepts found in Jewish sources: God as king and God as energy. Each concept offers a way of understanding Genesis Chapter One. Here God says, “Let there be light!” and light comes to be.
Readers in the Talmudic era (200-500 C.E.) pictured a King with a staff of thousands, quietly leaping to fulfill his every command, beginning with the creation of light.
Kabbalistic philosophers (c. 10th century) pictured an energy underlying all creation, in the way that breath underlies speech. Passed through a body’s cavities, breath becomes sound. Passed through God’s designs, divine energy becomes familiar ideas and objects.
Experimental design: The familiar Jewish practice of blessing is the technology used to explore the two concepts.
Talmud teaches that the world belongs to God the King. We inhabit it at the pleasure of our Divine landlord. We should pay rent at the rate of 100 expressions of gratitude per day. Each time we notice something extraordinary, we should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam…Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe who ___________________.”
Hasidic teachers (c. 1700-1800) use Hebrew etymology to recast the blessing as an appreciation of Divine energy. Baruch, traditionally translated as “blessing,” is from a root that also means “fountain.” Adonai stands in for YHWH, the Ineffable One. Elohim often refers to “God as revealed in creation.” Melekh shares a root with malchut, a kabbalistic synonym for Shechinah, God’s intimate maternal presence. The root of the word olam also means “elusive.” Thus, each time we see something extraordinary, we should say the Talmudic words, and mean, “You are flow, beyond concepts, yet revealed in creation, intimately close, yet elusive and infinite, present in this ______________________.”
Data Collection: On two summer days, I walked outdoors, taking ten minutes each day to notice extraordinary things. On the first day, I marked each thing noticed by saying in English the Kabbalistic interpretation of the blessing. On the second day, I did the same with the Talmudic interpretation. Each day I recorded my observations, thoughts and feelings.
“You…are present in this abandoned spider web.” Weather has frayed it into two kinds of tissue. The small, decaying thread opens onto potentially infinite information about the life form that produced it.
“You…are present in this dried-out maple seedpod.” The veins in its leaf are secret pathways, feeding it, just as the membranes hidden in the human body feed us. Many life forms have many common structures. Does a single molecular code structure us all?
“You…are present as my phone rings with a missed call, but no message is left.” My anxiety over lost information is insubstantial and yet overwhelming. What does its presence tell me about myself? Negative emotions are an opportunity to learn.
“Blessed are you…who created this flower.” As I get close to a glowing, yellow buttercup with an intricate center, I feel as though I am in a royal garden. The world seems incredibly lush.
“Blessed are you…who caused this seed carrying hair to float and land.” What a wondrous mechanism. My respect for the designer increases, but I do not speculate on how the designer operated.
“Blessed are you…who caused this crow to cross my path.” Why, the crow must be one of the King’s servants!
Analysis: “God as energy” brings my mind to familiar scientific and psychological questions. “God as King” helps me understand famous Jewish teaching stories about courtyards and angels of the king.
Conclusion: I believe in God as energy. This belief is consistent with my philosophical education. I do not believe in God as King. However, I find it a powerful metaphor.
Question for further research: Perhaps if I had more exposure to monarchy, I would take that metaphor literally as well.
You might be drawn to replicate this research project in your own life. Or you may think it would not be an authentic approach for you. By sharing the project, I invite you to research the God question on your own, drawing on tools of Jewish tradition. Practice responsible theology: research before believing. Over and over again.
Image: discussions4learning.com. Sources and Inspirations: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams on Tractate Berachot, Jerusalem & Babylonian Talmuds; Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing; Catherine Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
Every year on the 9th of Av it’s the same arguments in my head. Should I fast or not? On the one hand, the Temple was destroyed, and more. On the other, the State of Israel is reborn, and we Jews live in tremendous freedom. Besides, do we not look forward instead of back? The Judaism I practice helps me build toward a better future, not recreate the past. Between these poles I bounce all 24 hours long – and then, well then the fast is over, and I’ve made no resolution, no progress of how to mark the 9th of Av next summer.
“This is the Day of Destruction.” It’s a phrase my father uses to describe this date in Jewish History, the 9th of Av. Indeed, it was on this date that the First Temple fell (587 BCE) as well as the Second Temple (70 CE). Additionally, on the 9th of Av. It’s also the date of the negative report of the 12 spies that Moses sent (Num. 13-14), the date the Romans put down the Bar Kochbah Rebelion (132) and plowed over the Temple Mount (133) – All of the above constitute the 5 calamities of the described in the Mishnah Taanit 4:6 (200 CE). And there is more: The first crusade (1096), the expulsion from England (1290), the Expulsion from France (1306), and the Expulsion from Spain (1492). Closer to our own age, it was on the 9th of Av (Aug. 2, 1941) that Heinrich Himmler received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” the following year the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began.
Such a day… Traditionally, the 9th of Av is marked by fasting from food and drink, not bathing, not wear leather, and abstaining from sexual relations. In synagogues we sit on the floor, and by candle light we read the Book of Lamentations, “Shall the women eat their fruit, the children that are dandled in the hands?” (2:20). Blood in the streets, dead babies, young and old dead in the streets.
Why such anguish? I ask the same question about the passion of Jesus? What is the religious point of dwelling in such torture, blood, and murder? Why should I stomach such Biblical torture porn – the gore of Lamentations and of Jesus’ brutal beating and crucifixion remind me more of movies I choose not to see than of the religions of Love which I see in Judaism and in Christianity.
I believe that the case of the 9th of Av echoes the Christian understanding of the Passion of Jesus. To bear one’s cross is to feel the the very human pain of loss and hurt and loneliness and betrayal. Feeling the full force of the worst day(s) of one’ life is a powerful human connection to the Jesus story. Yet to focus on the horrible things that happened to Jesus or to the Jews on the 9th of Av is only half of the point. Can’t I try to see it from God’s perspective? What does it mean to loose your children right before your own eyes? Can I also cry for God?
Why should I cry for you? Why would you want me to?” – Why Should I Cry For You, Sting (Soul Cages).
The Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches that even when a criminal is hanged, God cries out ‘woe unto Me.’ Mankind is made in the image of the divine, and by extension whatever we do to others, it is as if we do it also to God. “When I injure my fellow man, I injure God.” -AJ Heschel.
This year, I see the 9th of Av as a day on which to feel the world’s pain: From the unrest in the streets of Syria and Egypt, the pain of strained race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman/Martin case, but also the acute sadness of friends in my circles who are mourning the deeply personal loss of loved ones. And everything in between. From broad and distant to particular and close by, my heart-strings are pulled by human tragedy. With every hurtful and hateful thing mankind is able to inflict upon each other, we diminish the image and the presence of God in the world. When we give heed to the suffering of others, we also hear God’s lament, “woe unto Me.” This, I believe is an important step in shedding Godly light into the broken places of our world.
We have to bring more Jews into Jewish Life.
We have to keep the Jewish community strong.
We have to strengthen Jewish identity.
These statements are the mantras of the organized Jewish community. I hear them expressed all the time. And I have a question: Why? Why do we need to do these things?
When I asked this question at a recent conference, blank stares greeted me. The highly intelligent people in the room had never asked themselves this question. They never had to because they already bought in to the system. They liked being Jews, identifying as Jews, and took for granted that when they moved somewhere they would join the local synagogue and JCC. It never occurred to them to ask why they did these things. They just did them. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they wanted to sing out “Tradition, tradition…..”
“Tradition” is no longer an answer that holds weight. We now need to think about what we get out of being Jewish. Each of us needs to ask ourselves, if we belong to a synagogue, or any other Jewish organization, or practice Jewish rituals are home, why do we do these things? What value and meaning do they add to our lives?
For me the answer is clear. I do these things because I want to bring God in to my life. I want to feel close to a higher power. I want to feel loved and cared for. Sometimes I feel that love in deep spiritual moments from God directly, and sometimes I feel that love through the community of friends and family which surrounds me. I am in the Jewish community because I believe and have experienced that life is better when we connect with other humans, when we help each other with the challenges we all face in life. By helping each other, we make the world a better place thus becoming partners with God in the continual creation of the world.
We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity. But we need to talk about what I see as the underlying reason for why we do all of these other things, which is searching out a connection to God.
How would the organized Jewish community look different if we put God front and center?
Even writing this idea causes me to feel anxious because “we” the “Jewish community” don’t speak like this. We tiptoe around the idea of God and even religion.
We need to bring God back in to our conversations. Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish? To be an active participant in a Jewish community? No. Nor do we all need to believe in the same God. But how can we continue to urge people to join a religious community when the topic of God is never raised?
I know critics will say we are more than a religion; we are a people, a tribe. Yes, this is also true. But this people would not have existed if a group had not originally come together in service of God.
So now, where does God fit in? Let’s start this conversation.
A great conversation starter, isn’t it?
These days, in public debate, it seems to be a great conversation stopper.
Perhaps you are now thinking, “Yes, there is a creator, lawgiver, compassionate friend, and universal energy holding us!” Perhaps you know exactly who God is and how God operates. You’ve read the texts and you’ve experienced the faith. The fundamentals are real for you.
Or perhaps you are thinking, “Ridiculous! There is no invisible supreme being.” You know that this entity does not exist independent of anyone’s hopeful imagination.
In today’s North American public debate about religion, no middle ground between these views seems to exist.
Usually a theist will describe God as creator, moral legislator, wish-granter, and redeemer.
Then an atheist will explain why one of those descriptors is false. For example: Species change through evolution, so God is not a creator. Human beings can figure out morality through social learning, so we don’t need divine command. My prayers to end war and cure cancer were not answered, so no God is listening. Despite promises of redemption the world is as messed up as ever. So the whole concept is silly, naïve and self-serving.
Liberal religious people who are not fundamentalists must find this stalled debate rather frustrating. I do; I often find myself wanting leap up and offer an educated Jewish perspective. Judaism – even the religious part – doesn’t require people to hold a specific view of God.
This week I get to do leap up! Today I’m on my way to teach a course called “Who is God?” at the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal Kallah.
The course description says: We speak of finding the Divine within. But who or what are we looking for — energy, witness, conscience, inner parent, or higher mind? Jewish tradition does not require us to choose only one. Torah, Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah all make multiple faces of God available to us. Our task is to find the faces that call to us.
We’ll begin the first class by asking ourselves a simple question: “What do we expect from God?” Perhaps we expect God to measure up to the fundamentalist description; perhaps we will be deeply disappointed if God does not. We would not be the first Jews to have high expectations; our Biblical ancestor Jacob set the tone. Even after a mind-blowing numinous dream of a ladder stretching up to heaven, and a personal introduction from a God-figure, Jacob says, “If you feed me, clothe me, and bring me home safely, I’ll believe that you are God.”
At the second class, we’ll learn that Jacob’s view of God the provider isn’t the only classical view. The five books of Torah offer five different portraits of God. In Genesis, God has simple, easy relationships with people. In Exodus, God self-reveals with great ambivalence. In Leviticus, God is an impersonal force that must be tended. In Numbers, God is a highly emotional being. In Deuteronomy, God is a universal force, personally accessible to all human beings.
At the third class, with great philosophers as our teachers, we will talk about experiences through which people claim to perceive God. Maimonides reaches for God by pushing his intellect to the limits of what he can conceive. Emmanual Levinas finds traces of God in the faces of people. Franz Rosenzweig finds God in love.
At the fourth and final class, we will look at spiritual practice. If you know the experience that makes God seem real for you, how do you reach for it in spiritual practice? Would you use music, social action, prayer, meditation, or intellectual reflection? We’ll explore our personal answers by responding to a few short Hassidic texts. Finally we’ll ask each other, “How have these explorations helped you find a definition of God you can work with?”
When I peeked at my class list, I recognized a few names; I saw diehard atheists, spiritual seekers, and committed theists, all ready to start a badly needed conversation.
I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
I’ve just started teaching a new course at my congregation on Jewish mysticism. There are many ways to engage with this sizable topic: we could focus on the intellectual history of mysticism from Ezekiel’s vision of a holy chariot through Merkavah mysticism, the Zohar and Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah and Chassidism, to name just a few eras and genres of literature. But I have found that the theory can get in the way of what really draws people to want to learn more about mysticism.
Mysticism, in its essence, is about the experiential. It points to direct experiences of that which others have then sought to do the impossible with – to put those deeply felt and powerful experiences into the limiting vessel of words. We need words to try and convey something to someone else. But words will never enable another to truly get inside the experience.
Take the biblical account of the Burning Bush. I don’t know if I can believe in that account in a literal manner. A bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed. And a voice spoke from out of the bush. But here’s what I absolutely do know from the story that is recounted. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of historical accuracy, but rather in terms of what the essential message of that moment in the story conveys to me. Moses, who had left his people and could have spent the rest of his life tending sheep and living among the Midianites, has a life-course altering experience. He is ‘called’ to do something else with his life. So powerful is the tug that he is willing to go back into the lion’s den, so to speak, to confront Pharaoh and lead his people with whom he has had so little contact. Perhaps it was the earlier interaction that he had had with a slave driver that weighed on his conscience for all those years until he could bear it no more, realizing that he had a responsibility to change the situation for the enslaved. Perhaps it was a dissatisfaction with his simple life and the question that had gnawed at him as he wondered what his purpose on earth truly was. But out in the wilderness with his sheep he had a mystical experience that caused him to entirely change the direction of his life and, with it, the history of our people.
How do you explain that to someone else? How do you express in words the power of such a transformative moment? There is no question that the image of the burning bush is a powerful one that conveys not only the extraordinariness of the moment, but also conveys that this is a God experience. Whether it actually happened that way or not is almost irrelevant – the transformative power of the moment is undeniable.
When I started my Jewish mysticism course this past week, I asked attendees if they could think of personal moments when an experience was so deeply felt that it seemed to point toward the existence of something beyond the here and now. A moment, if you like, when you ‘peered behind the veil’ of material existence, if only for a moment. The examples shared were not hard to find. Personal experiences of healing, or working with the sick and the dying, were particularly prevalent, perhaps because at these moments of greatest vulnerability we are more likely to let down our own defenses and be open to something larger than ourselves. And, as people shared, there was an emotion that came with the sharing; that lump in the throat and the tearing up of eyes as, through re-telling about the moment in words, the power of the original experience was felt all over again.
That’s the experience that we need to pay attention to. So often, we get caught up on the ways that others have defined God for us. We get caught up in philosophical debates about whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing. We may find the intellectual exercise an engaging one but, ultimately, it will not bring us any closer to truly understanding the nature of God. The most we can hope for are the brief glimpses that emerge in the fabric of our everyday lives. And we can learn, through awareness and spiritual practice (meditation in particular, but not uniquely) to pay attention to these moments and let them teach us and guide the path of our lives.
A few days ago, I stumbled across a terrific quote, which I eventually tracked down to a New York Times article in which Rabbi Marc Gellman asserts, “‘I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,’ Gellman said. ‘Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! … Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is expressing gratitude.” The quote reminded me (and perhaps was inspired by, who knows?) of the Christian writer Anne Lamott, who is among my favorite writers. Last year she came out with a new book called, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, in which she asserts the same idea.
I happened to be struck by this quote, perhaps it was one of those moments when things come together – maybe Lamott would call it a miracle- because I had that morning had a peculiar conversation with my partner in which I was feeling a little sorry for myself (Not Attractive, I know). We had been talking about the need for people to share personal things in their lives with their friends, in particular, struggles and problems, and when he asked me who besides himself that would be (on the idea that one’s spouse should not be one’s only support -especially since they’re sometimes the problem that requires unloading) I had to admit that I had no idea who that would be.
It’s funny, but I’ve always felt terribly awkward about burdening other people with my problems. Perhaps I would have made an excellent Englishwoman, since I’m quite good at keeping the “stiff upper lip” and “carrying on” most of the time. But I just feel as though it would be wrong for me to bother people with my petty little bullshit. Is it arrogance? I have no dislike of people coming to me with their problems. To the contrary, like most people, I regard a confidence as a positive thing – part of relationship-building. So maybe it is arrogance – as if somehow I’m different and can get along without.
But I don’t think that I am the only person struggling with this. Indeed, I think it’s why so many people have trouble with prayer – and even with religion (as opposed to a nebulous and unstructured “spirituality,” which demands little of us in terms of self-revelation or discipline). Prayer is indeed “help, thanks, wow,” and there is nothing more difficult than to ask for help.
In an interview with NPR about her book, Lamott says, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.
“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
There are two levels to not asking for help: there is fear of rejection. What if someone did feel burdened by one’s TMI. On the human level, of course, this is obvious. Who doesn’t occasionally fear being rejected? And being told that you are making yourself too intimate in passing along the more than usual information is pretty scary. Being told that the other person does not want your intimacy.
But people can fear rejection on the divine level as well. The talmudic story of Elisha Ben Abuya, also known as “Acher,” – “the Other,” – is a classic example of this. Although there are several tales of how he became alienated from the community of the sages, it is what happens after that is full of pathos. It is, indeed, terrible. In several places, Elisha is described as being excluded from the possibility of repentance. His student, Meir, begs him to return (to repent and be re-accepted by God for –whatever it was he did), but Elisha tells him that he has heard a heavenly voice which told him, “All may return – except Acher”
And yet this idea is one in every other place foreign to Judaism. No one is truly ever eternally excluded from the possibility of returning to God. Repentance might be very difficult, it might even require one’s death to complete atonement, but it is not impossible. Perhaps what was really so pathetic here is that one can, reading carefully, interpret the passages as meaning either that Elisha wasn’t forbidden to return, but Acher was – in other words, he had to abandon his identity as someone different from everyone else, and allow his community to help him mend, or perhaps even that the only thing standing in his way was himself – that that voice that he thought of as God’s voice was only in his own head, and God would have accepted him back at any time.
It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
I recently returned from an amazing trip to Senegal. I was there to visit my step-daughter who is serving in the Peace Corps. It was incredible to get a taste of her experience living in a village in an inner region of the country. Returning home, as many have asked us if we had a good vacation, I have found myself answering, vaguely, “It was an experience.” I’m so glad we had the opportunity to have this experience and yet it is unlike anything I’ve ever done for vacation before.
There is much that I could say about the trip and all that we experienced, from the landscape, the people and cultures, the food, to the village way of life. But I’d like to share one story that I shared with two of my classes at Religious School last night in the context of our theological, “God Talk” sessions. The topic? Transportation.
Public transportation is quite an experience in Senegal. Aside from our initial trip in from Dakar to the inland region, where we shared a private ride with another Peace Corps family, we opted to use public transport to get around. We found ourselves getting into vehicles that, in any other country, I would never dream of traveling in. There was not a single taxi ride that we took for very local journeys that did not involve a taxi with multiple cracks across the front windscreen. All of the shared 7-seater cars that we took had taken some kind of beating on the severely potholed roads that we traveled. But the most challenging ride we took was in one of the regional minibuses that ride from market town to market town. After a three-hour wait on the side of the road following a beautiful hike to a waterfall in a fairly remote eco-tourist location, this was all that came by, and we decided that it was possibly our only ride back to home base that day.
These buses are loaded with as many people as they can hold, along with any assortment of items up on the roof (in another location we saw three goats that had been purchased in the market town seated up top). After a very bumpy hour-and-a-half ride back to base, one of us seated in the aisle on a bag of rice and one of us with a set of live chickens under our seat, we arrived safely at our destination.
We had planned to take an overnight back to Dakar at the end of our trip so as to avoid traveling in the hot daytime. However, upon arrival at the market town where we expected to make that connection we learned that the reservation that had been made by phone didn’t exist as that particular bus had been rerouted for that one night to Touba for a Muslim pilgrimage. Another lengthy wait ensued and we got ourselves a ride on a 7-seater that brought us safely back to Dakar in plenty of time for our plane home the following night.
The following morning, sitting in a Dakar coffee shop, I picked up one of the French newspapers. My French isn’t what it used to be, but I could translate enough of the front page article to see that the previous night, a bus on its way to Touba had been in a head-on collision with one of the regional minibuses. Not just any bus: the bus we were supposed to take. All 26 occupants of the minibus were killed.
After taking in the tragedy of the story, my very next thought, reflecting back on the previous day’s frustrations as our plans had gone awry and we’d had a long, hot wait for alternative transportation was, “Perhaps it was meant to be.” And in almost the same moment of utterance, I felt ashamed. Meant to be that we were not on one of those buses? Meant to be that we had to change our plans? But surely not meant to be for the 26 souls who died?
As I shared the theological implications of the statement with my students, we reflected on how often we find ourselves, upon seeing the larger picture, or realizing that something good has come out of something that we initially perceived as bad, voicing such a statement. It’s familiar to many. But what do we actually mean by it? Continue reading