Living on the Edge (Beha’alotecha, June 12th 2020) Jun 12, 2020 23:38:39 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on Jun 12, 2020 23:38:39 GMT
There is a rawness to life at the moment that many of us are feeling that is different to anything we have felt before. It has come about from a combination of a virus that has the potential to silently and invisibly kill us, from the separation of everyone from their extended social networks, from economic insecurity that likes of which none of us have ever before witnessed, from an incompetent, belligerent and morally corrupt Administration that divides the nation, and from the unavoidable awareness of profound and systemic racial oppression that continues in this country. Just before turning on the news, many of us give out an audible sigh in anticipation of the horror and the dispiriting violence to the soul that we experience every time we learn of more misery in this country and across the world.
I cannot help but think of the alternate reading in the siddur adapted from the writing of Mitchell Fisher – “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied.” Now we’ve been shaken and suddenly we realize that we really don’t like this feeling. It’s all well and good when we’re comfortable wishing for a greater sense of awareness of pain and suffering, but then when faced with the reality of it, we yearn to return to a time of comfort. Like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, yearning to go back to Egypt because although it was far from ideal, it was structured and safe. We become so used to our safety nets, to our usual ways of living our lives, that changing them becomes profoundly unsettling. It’s why Miriam and Aaron gossip about Moses’ Cushite wife, because she was something new and different and thus unwelcome. We talk about welcoming change, but very often we like change to look, sound and behave exactly the way things used to look, sound and behave. What differentiates us from the Hebrews who had left Egypt is that we live lives of privilege, where their lives went from sorrow to sorrow – from slavery to wandering in the wilderness with only manna to eat for decades.
“Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from the shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.” It’s all there! We asked to be made aware of our own privilege and now we feel uncomfortable at the realization. I feel like there’s a cosmic voice calling us, “Are you satisfied now?” to which we subconsciously respond, “No, not really!” “Disturb us, O God, and vex us…” Well, now we’re vexed! Now we got what we asked for. Now most of us are filled with unease in ways we never have before. We miss friends and family, we miss the physical presence of community, we miss financial stability, we miss feeling secure in our own homes and in the company of others, we miss moral national leadership.
My hope is that, as uncomfortable as it is, we can hold onto this feeling, at least somewhat, for it is from this sense of unease that personal and communal transformation can grow, and it is religion that can help shape the vision for that growth. Timothy Beal wrote (Religion and Its Monsters, 2002) that “religion is about creating and maintaining a sacred cosmic order against chaos. Religion is about establishing and maintaining sacred space and sacred time against the “formless expanse” of chaos surrounding it.” What we are experiencing now is the fringe of chaos, the peek into the abyss of disappearance or dismantling of everything we hold dear.
Very often, we assume that the holy means the completely good. However, the root quf-dalet-shin, from where the words Kadosh, Kiddush, and Kaddish are derived, means separate, distinct, different, outside of our everyday experience. When Leviticus 19:1 adjures us to be holy, it means that we need to get out of usual society and be different. Well, now we’re outside usual society. Now we are just starting to approach nothingness, the emptiness of the self, the deconstruction of our personal identity as we previously knew it. Now, we’re starting to undo ourselves and thus approach the ineffable.
A very common phrase in Jewish theology is yirat shamayim. It literally translates as the fear of heaven, although it is usually translated as the awe of heaven. Modern Jews often talk about their dislike of the idea of fear of heaven because they feel that it is patriarchal, a God above who rules by fear, but that’s really not what it means at all. It means that we are discomforted in the presence of God, that we have all our presumptions of self stripped away and that we do not know the future. As a result of that discomfort, we cleave to God, we acknowledge our own frailty and we start to truly pray.
This Shabbat, let us not pray for a return to normality because this uncomfortable feeling is specifically what we prayed for. Our prayers were actually answered! I’m not sure that we were ready for that to happen! This Shabbat, let us really take to heart that motivation of the last two lines of the prayer we’ve been looking at – “let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred into action.” Shabbat is a time of avoiding creative world-changing work but that does not mean that it has to be a time of total inaction. It can and should be a time of reimagining the world and our relationship to it, of reflecting on the world around us and our place in it. This nervousness, this unease, this malaise that has settled upon so many of us, this yirat shamayim, this sense of kedushah, this is not something we came to lightly, and it is not something we should quickly seek to abandon. It is something filled with potential – the potential to change ourselves and the potential to change the world around us. It is something we should use not fear. It is a sacred discomfort. It is the fringes of the ineffable, of that which is beyond the self. It is the basis of awareness of Divinity.
So, let us pray to hold onto this discomfort so that it awakens us and changes us. Let us live in it fully so that we may appreciate that which we have lost, and then work harder to regain it. Let us all experience real yirat shamayim so that we can more fully connect to each other and to that which is larger than us, and let us say, Amen.