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Seeking God in this Liminal Moment – Toledot 5783

It is a special pleasure to read Parashat Toledot on this day, when we have named two baby girls, cousins who will surely get along better than Ya’aqov and Esav.

There was a moment up front in what we read this morning where Rivqah, their mother, is suffering miserably as the two baby boys are wrestling within her. (I’m picturing them pulling classic entertainment wrestling moves: Esav is executing a “pile-driver” on his brother.)

The Torah reports that the experience is so miserable for her that she cries out to God (Bereshit / Genesis 25:22):

וַיִּתְרֹֽצְצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־ה’׃

The boys struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” And she went to inquire of God.

The JPS translation of lidrosh in the above quote is “to inquire,” but the verb לִדְרֹשׁ “lidrosh” really means to seek: Rivqah went to seek God. 

This verb is most familiar to us in the context of interpreting words of Torah. You may be familiar with various forms of this verb: one gives a “derash,” a brief interpretation, or perhaps a lengthier “derashah,” a sermon. “Midrash” is a story which fills in the gaps of the Torah’s text, and of course a “beit midrash” is a house of study, wherein we seek the deeper meanings of our ancient texts, as we attempt to discern the wisdom therein.

Rivqah, in her misery, seeks God.

Right now, we are in a time of seeking, and in particular, we should be seeking God right now. I’ll come back to that.

I was away at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative Rabbis about three weeks ago, and I had the privilege of spending several sessions learning with Reverend Susan Beaumont, an ordained Baptist minister who works as a leadership consultant to houses of worship. Speaking to a room full of rabbis, she introduced concepts in a language that, at least at first, was effectively Greek to scholars of Hebrew and Aramaic.

The theme of her remarks was “Leading in a Liminal Season.” “Liminality” is the period of uncertainty in between; when the old paradigm is gone, and the new reality has not yet revealed itself. Right now, a few years of pandemic have in many ways altered, if not fundamentally changed, the landscape for many institutions, including houses of worship like this one. The challenge for all of us in this liminal season is how to move forward in this in-between period.

An appropriate parallel from Jewish life is the concept of “bein hashemashot,” the part of the day between sunset and dark, when you are not sure if it is still day or night has fallen. This is particularly important on Saturday nights, at the end of Shabbat. Is Shabbat over when the sun goes down? Or when you can see three stars? The answer, as you all know, is the latter, but there is a period of about 30-45 minutes of in-between, when it’s not clear if it’s still Shabbat. We wait until at least three stars are visible so we are absolutely sure. But there is, at least in theory, a period of discernment when we are waiting for those stars to appear, just to make sure we are safely into Sunday, before we recite havdalah, the prayer of separation from Shabbat.

You might make the case that pregnancy is also a liminal season, that Rivqah seeks God not only because the twins are struggling within her, but also that it is a time in which she has clearly left behind her life before motherhood, but has not yet entered the next phase of her life.

According to Rev. Beaumont, one of the keys to finding our way in a liminal season, in leading when we do not know what is coming next, is to seek to understand the soul of your congregation, and to tend that soul as we seek Divine guidance for the future.

And when she said that, the room full of 30 or so rabbis immediately thought, “What on Earth is she talking about?” Soul is a concept about which Christians talk a lot, but the idea is sort of mystifying for the Jews. She explained that a congregation’s “soul” exists outside of the individual members; it is a collective sense of who we are. Not culture, not rituals, not the organizational culture, not the collective voice of lay or clergy leadership, but the truest sense of self of the institution, that which is based in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu / the holy, blessed One. The soul of this congregation is, as she put it, “the source of the Divine calling and character, and the protector of institutional integrity.”

I’m pretty sure I have seen the soul of Congregation Beth Shalom on display from time to time. I know I felt it when, two months ago on Rosh HaShanah, I could hear the hundreds of people in the room singing “Berosh haShanah yikkatevun; uvyom tzom Kippur yeḥatemun” (On Rosh HaShanah God’s verdict is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed in the Book of Life), singing those words together for the first time in three years in such numbers. That was an incredibly soul-filled moment; it brought me to tears. I might have caught a glint of Beth Shalom’s soul last Saturday night as we honored all of our past presidents.

But I do not think I could describe the soul of Beth Shalom. When pressed further on how to seek and find the soul of our congregations, Rev. Beaumont explained that it is not so simple. She described sitting alone in the sanctuary of her own church for six months in silence, waiting for some kind of revelation, and it did not come to her. So this is not easy work, but it is essential for leading in a liminal time. It is our soul which will guide us into the future. 

“We cannot presume,” writes Rev. Beaumont, “to strengthen an organization, its culture, its processes, its structures, without engaging its soulfulness.”

Considering the state of our wider society, we need to seek God right now because there are just so many struggles, so many ways in which we are wrestling with each other. The recent mass shootings are only one particularly tragic sort of manifestation of this struggle; the eruptions of anti-Semitism in pop culture is another. I am sure you can think of many such ways in which American society is struggling with itself. Some of this is clearly due to the fact that we are in a liminal period, that we are seeking leadership and in need of discernment. The soul of America is hidden from view, and we do not know what is coming next.

The Torah, the rest of the Tanakh, the Talmud, and all of the greatest works of rabbinic literature always see God as an essential actor in the Jewish story, in collaboration with the Jewish soul. We have always sought God in times of crisis, in times of pain and of joy. 

תהלים קל, Psalm 130 is one of my favorite psalms. It is one of the standard offerings of Taḥanun, the brief prayers of supplication which we recite on many weekday mornings. It opens with a reminder that the world is filled with, and has always been filled with, to use the polite term, tzuris. (That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew tzarot, meaning trouble.) 

שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֑וֹת מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ ה’׃ 

Out of the depths I call You, O LORD. (Psalm 130:1)

We call out to God every day, throughout our history. We are waiting for God’s presence, waiting for God to be revealed, because we know that we are in the ma’amaqim, the depths.*

But there is an even better line in the psalm, a little further down, v. 6:

נַפְשִׁ֥י לַאדֹנָ֑י מִשֹּׁמְרִ֥ים לַ֝בֹּ֗קֶר שֹׁמְרִ֥ים לַבֹּֽקֶר׃

Nafshi ladonai mishomerim laboqer shomerim laboqer.

I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen watch for the morning

What is curious about that verse is the repetition of shomerim laboqer. And I have seen some translations merely repeat the words, i.e. “I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning.” But that is a poor translation. More accurately, the metaphor is the shomerim laboqer, the morning watchmen who are shomerim laboqer, watching, waiting eagerly for the morning.

What we hear in that verse is the painful waiting for God. The silence, punctuated by the ticking of a clock running on a geologic scale. Where is the Qadosh Barukh Hu? When will our redemption come?

When I hear that verse, I hear my Israeli son, serving guard duty, being a shomer, at his IDF base in the middle of the night, calling me out of sheer boredom, waiting, watching, waiting for morning, for the shift change, so he can go to sleep.

The metaphor speaks powerfully across the ages. We need redemption from all that ails us; to borrow from Psalm 121, we continue to lift up our eyes to the hills expectantly; from where will our help come? 

It is that yearning, the ancient Jewish desire for God’s presence in time of need, which helps us be better people, which will ultimately guide us through the liminality of this moment. We need the sense of Divine action in the world, even if we cannot easily perceive it. We need the sense that help is on the way, even as we struggle with one another, and we have to hold ourselves together in the meanwhile, to find our way through the darkness. We wait eagerly for the dawn, and as we continue searching for our soul, we can reassure ourselves that we are not alone. That it is going to be OK. 

It was Voltaire who said, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.”

If God did not exist, it would have been necessary for us to invent God, so that we may seek God during liminal times. It is through seeking God, through the source of Divine calling to the soul, that we will find our way into the future.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/26/2022.)

* One of the most captivating features of medieval Ashkenazi synagogue architecture, visible (for example) at the Altneuschul in Prague, the oldest continuously-functioning synagogue in the world, is that the sheliaḥ tzibbur (prayer leader) stands in a depression in the floor, a few inches lower than the rest of the congregation. This reflects the fact that we are crying out to God mima’amaqim, out of the depths.

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Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

Back in Great Neck (you might have heard me use that phrase a few times already in the last two-and-a-half months) I used to teach a workshop for benei mitzvah families, wherein we spoke about (among other things) our understanding of God. And every single time we had the God discussion, I would emphasize that where you are at age thirteen in your understanding of God is probably not where you’ll be at age 18, or 22, or 40, or 65. I actually wish that somebody had told ME that when I was preparing to become bar mitzvah.

But nobody did, so I had to figure this out for myself.

As we move through life, we change. The character and quality of our interpersonal relationships change. Our outlook changes. Some of the things we value as teenagers eventually seem ridiculous, and things that once seemed irrelevant have value. And even when the circumstances of our lives are not dramatically altered, sometimes the internal journey is much more powerful and revealing.

Consider, for example, our relationships with our parents. Mark Twain gave us the following piece of wisdom: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Our understanding of God and ourselves is central to Parashat Lekh Lekha. How does the parashah open? God tells Avram, (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Lekh lekha me-artzekha, umimoladtekha, umibeit avikha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Those two deceptively simple words, lekh lekha, are translated (New JPS) as “Go forth.” But the depth concealed within those three simple syllables is astounding.

First, we know nothing about Avram. Nothing more than his lineage and that (at the end of Parashat Noah last week) his father Terah had once started to emigrate to Canaan, but was sidetracked and remained in Haran. There is nothing that suggests that Avram is the right person to be sent on this journey, or that he is somehow holier or more pious or more intelligent or capable than anybody else.

Second, there is no indication, at least in this verse, that Avram has any clue where he is supposed to go once he has left his family behind; he only knows that God will show him. This is an entirely indeterminate journey.

Third, the imperative “lekh lekha” is grammatically difficult. To translate it literally, it might be saying, “Go unto you.” Given the complexities of translation, particularly from ancient to modern languages, it is nonetheless clear that this phrase speaks volumes.

Yes, it seems that God is telling Avram to leave his ancestral homeland (which would today be located in Iraq) and go somewhere else. But even more so, Avram is also being urged to take not only a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well – to leave the idolatrous landscape of his family, and to start anew in a headspace that only features the one true God. And the drastic nature of his physical journey reflects the challenge of the spiritual journey.

Rashi tells us that the “lekha” suggests, “For your own benefit and for your own advantage.” That is, Avram’s move will be good for him. What follows the opening verse, of course, is a promise that he will sire a great nation, a promise that will ultimately be reiterated to Isaac and Jacob as well.

But we must read this promise as not just a physical benefit, but also a theological benefit. Avram’s journey is to improve himself, to seek the proper way to live, to find his true nature, but it also encompasses his initiation of a monotheistic legacy, which will ultimately impact much of the world.

All the more so, says Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, in his analysis of Lekh Lekha. We are each endowed with our own unique challenges, our natural characteristics, which may include some unsavory aspects, like anger or lust or pride. But we are also given the opportunity to rise to the occasion to fulfill our own particular roles in this world to do good.

Avram’s spiritual journey, then, is the challenge of self-discovery as well as self-improvement. He is ordered to leave his home, his family, to go off to some unknown place far away. But he will surmount this difficulty and thus fulfill his role as the common ancestor of all monotheistic traditions.

And the Slonimer Rebbe takes it even further: Lekh lekha tells us not only that it is Avram’s role to overcome the idolatry of his youth, but that it is the role of every single Jewish person to repair one’s own soul so that we might go on to repair the world. And furthermore, he says, it is not enough merely to learn Torah, to pray, to perform mitzvot / commandments. Rather, he says, when one arrives in heaven, s/he will be asked, “What did you DO in the physical world?” And what Rabbi Berezovsky is telling us is that even the most pious among us, the ones who davened three times a day, every day and never even so much as looked at an un-hekhshered slice of cheese pizza, we will be challenged to demonstrate that we have pursued the iqqar, the principle item of importance. And that iqqar is not ritual acts or Torah study, but rather tiqqun olam, repairing the world. Doing good works with our hands for the benefit of others in need, for the greater good of humanity. That is the essential physical task of life.

OK, that’s great rabbi, but what do I do? How do I know what my role is in this very fractured world?

Well, so I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you that. That is only something that you can determine for yourself. That is what Avram did by leaving his homeland and moving to Canaan.

But his seeking of himself does not end with his arrival in Canaan; in fact, upon arrival, he almost immediately departs to Egypt. Later we find him moving to and fro in Canaan, digging for wells in Beersheva, journeying to Moriah, what will eventually be called Jerusalem, to climb a mountain that will some day be the spiritual focal point for his offspring, and so forth. His is a lifetime of seeking; he never quite completes the journey.

And so too do we continue to seek. Our journey goes on.

Every week at the conclusion of Shabbat, we recite words from Isaiah (12:3):

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

Those wells are within us. Yes, Avram may have traveled all over the ancient Middle East in seeking himself, in going forth unto himself. We do not necessarily have to do that. (Of course, a trip to Israel that includes a visit to the holy sites of Jerusalem and hikes in the desert and a good soak in Yam HaMelah / the Dead Sea can indeed be revelatory.)

We do not have to seek outside of ourselves; we can find the answers about what our individual or collective roles are within, deep in those internal wells of salvation. But we do have to look. And that takes work – not unlike the physical challenge posed by God to Avram to pick up and leave his homeland and his father’s house. And it also takes time, as we mature and learn ever more about ourselves.

As we attempt to frame our lives with meaning, the key question, then, posed by the Torah and by Jewish tradition, is not our understanding of God, but rather how we understand ourselves.

Most of us will probably not receive a direct commandment from God to pick up and leave home. But we will all face a changed understanding of ourselves and how we relate to God and the world as we age. Many of us, I hope, will reach beyond our comfort zone into those deep wells in search of our true selves, to look for that role that we all might play in repairing the world. You don’t have to move to Israel or enroll full-time in the Jewish Theological Seminary to do so, but you do have to dig. Each of us has that potential; I hope that you will act on it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2015.)