Lifting our Eyes

(Dvar Torah on Vayeira)

Shabbat Shalom! Sometimes when I look back on my week, a clear theme emerges. Maybe it’s the same with you. 

For me, this week’s theme has been navigating spaces where disagreement is sharp and inevitable. It’s not only the election, although that has been heavy on my mind. It’s also many other situations I find myself in. For example, in one of my internships, I get to work with a small group whose members’ political views vary widely within the group and vary from my own views. And then there’s social media, and other modes of non-face-to-face communication. Sometimes it seems like the deck is stacked with opportunities to separate from one another, to say, “I can’t possibly be in relationship or in community with this person. We are too different.” And yet, this very response is self-perpetuating, leading to fewer and fewer of the connective threads that bind us together. 

The less we interact with each other, the less we see—really see—each other. And the less we see each other, the less we feel safe to interact. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the stability of our society. The media environment contributes in terrible, cynical, and dishonorable ways. There is so much noise, so much static from overheated news sources that profit by making caricatures of political opponents, making them look more like monsters than actual humans created בצלם ,אלהים in the image of God. Today being Veteran’s Day reminds us of the awful human cost when we stop seeing one another’s humanity, and instead stoke the flames of conflict.

The Rabbis of the Talmud had a discussion on Brachot 9b about how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, that ultimate prayer of unity. Some of the Sages say there needs to be enough light so we can tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance. Our Sages were telling us how important it is for us to really notice the people around us. You can’t love your neighbor if you can’t see your neighbor.

Our Torah portion this week offers a lesson in this kind of openness. The name of the parsha, and also its first word, Vayeira, means, “And Adonai appeared.” At the beginning of the parsha, God appears to Abraham as he rests at the opening of his tent, exhausted and in pain. Yet, when God draws his attention to the form of three approaching strangers, Abraham lifts his eyes וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו and takes in the sight of the three figures, who are typically interpreted to be three messengers from God. 

In this source text for traditional Jewish hospitality, Abraham welcomes the three as honored guests, washing their feet and offering the best food that he and Sarah have on hand. Rather than being suspicious of the new arrivals, he instead made every effort to make them at home. When he lifted his eyes, he truly saw them and welcomed them in.

What’s remarkable about this scene is that Abraham’s hospitality and welcome were unconditional. While he might have had reason to be suspicious or wary of people he didn’t know, he leaned instead into openness and curiosity, becoming a model for our people of how hospitality and human connection can look. 

Later in the parsha, Abraham is in an altogether different situation as he navigates God’s loyalty test for him: the binding of his son Isaac. In this moment, Abraham finds himself in a horrific, impossible situation, having seemingly been instructed by God to sacrifice his own child. Leaving aside the morality of this test—as far as I’m concerned, God has a lot to answer for in this parsha—what I want us to notice tonight is what gets Abraham out of this unthinkable situation. He is literally poised with a knife over his son’s throat when he hears a voice, another messenger from God, calling out his name. And again, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a ram in the thicket, which he then substitutes for Isaac in the sacrifice. Lifting his eyes and seeing his surroundings more clearly prevents Abraham from making the mistake of a lifetime.

The first verse of Psalm 121 contains these words: אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי I lift my eyes up to the hills, where my help comes from. There is something about looking and seeing that settles us and calls us into alignment. Perhaps this is why the Sages of the Talmud so insistently emphasize seeing as the condition under which we can call on one another to acknowledge God’s holy presence. In a clear enough light we can see the image of God in our neighbors, and in ourselves.

Which brings us back to the current climate of disagreement and distrust. It could be different! I read an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about a convent located near the campus of Neumann University that is dedicating part of its space as a dormitory for undergraduate students. What began as an unlikely but practical solution to a shortage of on-campus housing has turned into a very touching story of people meeting across differences of culture, background, belief and lifestyle. The nuns and the students are now sharing nature walks, knitting lessons, and occasional meals together. The nuns bake cookies for the students and the students order ice cream sandwiches for the nuns. Most of all, they spend time together learning to understand one another’s very different lives. They are breaking stereotypes and preconceptions by lifting their eyes and truly seeing each other. 

What would it be like if more of us lifted our eyes away from our stereotypes, from our habitual ways of seeing the world, from our doomscrolling and sought out God’s image in one another, even—or maybe especially—with people we disagree with, the so-called other side? I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as a solution for out-and-out hate, but rather for not allowing simmering distrust and misunderstanding to fester into hate in the first place. We can only enter into productive relationship that can withstand conflict when we truly see one another clearly. And we might learn something about the world and about ourselves by taking that risk, in curiosity and hope.

Shabbat shalom!

Teshuvah from Where the Wild Things Are

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him WILD THING! And Max said, I’LL EAT YOU UP! So he was sent to bed, without eating anything. 

These famous first words open up a story that is probably familiar to most of us from childhood—and possibly from parenthood. It is, of course, Where the Wild Things Are, a so-called children’s book by the Jewish author and artist Maurice Sendak; a book that takes us on a fantastical trip to the place where the wild things are. But more than that, it takes us on an interconnected, mother-son journey of teshuvah, from sin and error, to repentance and return. There are theological lessons in this sweet book that are in deep conversation with our Torah and Haftarah readings today, and with the themes of the day itself.

Our Torah reading articulates three main principles regarding our moral obligations: first, that we all—from the elders to the children to the laborers to the strangers—stand together before God, committing to an eternal brit, an everlasting covenant. All of us are implicated, included, invited into this brit. Nobody is immune; the work is on all of us to take up. The Torah says, 

וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת׃

כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם׃

Not only with you do I swear this covenant and this oath, but with those who stand here with us today before Adonai our God, and those who do not stand here with us today.

Future generations are responsible for taking on the work of Torah, for doing the mitzvot to the best of our understanding and ability. 

Second, as we heard just a little while ago, the work is hard but not impossible. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא It is not in the heavens, such that you might ask who will go up and get it for us? No, it’s much closer than that!

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ׃
The thing is very close to you: in your mouth and in your heart, to do it 

The teaching is in our words, and our actions, and our highest instincts. We know what we are called on to do; God lays it out for us in the instruction we call Torah 

Thirdly, the Torah reading makes it clear that we will have choices throughout our lives. God is not making a blanket promise that all we need to do is show up. Rather God sets before us 

אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע
Life and goodness, and death and evil 

The choice is ours to make, at each and every moment. The philosopher Victor Frankl, who survived three years in the concentration camps that killed many of his family members, taught about the opening between stimulus and response, sometimes no wider than a slit: our capacity to pause and reflect on how to handle what comes our way is where our moral character is built. No matter how degrading a situation we might be in, there is always the possibility of redemption: ours and that of the people around us. When we make life-affirming choices, things will go well for us, but if we turn to false gods, we won’t last long.

Which brings us back to Max, in the storybook. That night he wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, he was, as they say in the parenting books, not making good choices. Of course, of course, he was just a little kid and was probably doing the best he could. But for the purposes of thinking about teshuvah, let’s imagine his exile with the wild things is a kind of straying after false gods, and perhaps even—when he becomes king of the wild things—making a false god of himself. To be honest, he enjoys that status for a while: frolicking with the wild things, wearing his “King of the Wild Things” crown with pride and pleasure. He is riding high, the five-year-old who has everything.

And yet, something is missing in his fantasy of a glorified existence. He is isolated and alone, disconnected from what truly matters. All the attention and status and power of being King of the Wild Things turns out to be an empty attainment.

The Haftarah speaks to this disillusionment, addressing a people who have gone astray and crowned themselves king; who have fallen away from God’s holy ideals and gotten embroiled in the daily work of getting ahead. The prophet Isaiah rails at the hypocrisy of making a show of religious observance while oppressing workers and not striving for justice and equality. He calls us to examine not just our rituals but the ethical commitments that underpin them. “Is this the fast I desire? A day for starving bodies, heads bowed, sackcloth and ashes? Is this what God wants? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the snares of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry.” 

If we are fasting today to get God’s attention, we are doing it wrong. Rather, God asks us to fast to get our attention. Our fast cannot be an empty gesture, but should lead to action and change. When we observe Yom Kippur with intention and back it with action, when we make choices that affirm our core values, God is near to us. God says, Hineni. Here I am.

Even the God of Unetaneh Tokef, the God Who decides who will live and who will die, has that soft side, for we know that repentance, prayer and charity diminish the harshness of the decree. And that God is slow to anger and ready to forgive. 

וְעַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ תְּחַכֶּה לוֹ, אִם יָשׁוּב מִיַּד תְּקַבְּלוֹ

And until their dying day, You wait for them.
If only they return, You accept them back unhesitatingly.

What does it all mean? What is God waiting for? The final aliyah that I just chanted moments ago lays out the task: 

לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדׇבְקָה־בוֹ
To love Adonai your God and to listen to God’s voice and hold it close

When Max has his realization that he wants to be where someone loves him best of all, it’s that primary connection that he longs after. This sweet image of a patient God leaving the light on is a beacon of faith and inspiration. Like Max’s mother, the liturgy of the High Holidays depicts God seeing our faults and lashing out with impatience or even fury, yet there is great tenderness in this relationship too. The phrase Avinu Malkeinu which we recite over and over on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reminds us of that duality—Avinu Malkeinu, our parent, our ruler—the one who both judges us and loves us.

And Max, the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye, and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him. 

And it was still hot.

Come learn with me!

One God, Many Aspects: Examining God Metaphors in Jewish Sacred Text (5 sessions) 

Offered under the auspices of Open Circle Jewish Learning at Hebrew College.

Instructor: Naomi Gurt Lind 

Day and Time: Sundays 11-12:30 p.m. Eastern Time 

Dates: October 30, November 6, 13, 27, December 4, 2022  

Location: Online via Zoom 

Tuition: $180 (Generous scholarship support available.)

Registration Link: 

This course examines the many images and metaphors of God that are found throughout Jewish sacred text. For example, in the first blessing of the Amidah, God is referred to as: king, helper, savior, and shield. Elsewhere, we see God described as a shepherd, a builder, a bearer… even a moth. Sometimes God is described as compassionate, sometimes jealous, sometimes righteous. What do these images and descriptions mean within the context of the literature, and what do they mean for us as we construct a theology for our lives? Which God-metaphors are rich and robust for us? Which are troubling? Which leave us cold? In each session we will examine a handful of God-metaphors in their context and in conversation with our own lives and concerns. We will draw on Biblical sources and supplement them with commentary from our sages and from modern thinkers and poets. 

A Kippah in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me!

I turn around. It’s pandemic springtime, and the Trader Joe’s parking lot is bustling. What does this stranger want from me?

“Do you always wear … [gesturing at my kippah]?” Aged perhaps in his mid to late 60s, friendly but not smiling, he speaks with an Israeli accent. 

“I do. I mean, not while I’m sleeping, but yeah. I wear it regularly.”

“Can you tell me why?”

I have been wearing a kippah daily for over a year. In all that time, I’ve never been asked this question so bluntly. People have commented that they noticed, but never asked me to explain myself. 

I stammer a moment.

Why indeed?

And why is he asking?

Lacking any ability to size him up or assess his motivation for asking, I plunge in awkwardly. “I wear it to remind myself that there’s something much larger than me, to remind myself that this is God’s world, not mine. שְׁכִינָה לְמַעְלָה מֵרֹאשִׁי [God’s presence is above my head, BT Kiddushin 31b] you know?”

“That’s… interesting,” he says, not walking away. He clearly wants to talk. 

“There was another attack on a rabbi recently. Why are you tempting fate, wearing a kippah? Are you scared,” he asks. 

“I sometimes think I should be, but so far, I’m not.”

When the Chabad attacks happened, I thought about stopping, about putting it away for a while. When the Colleyville synagogue attack happened, I again considered changing my habits, but for now I’m holding steady. I don’t want to be fearful, and I don’t want to lean on the privilege to hide what makes me a potential target, when so many people can’t hide what makes them targets. I am not a Jew of convenience. This is who I am. 

A few weeks back I had been in a different part of the country, in a semi-rural area, and I thought long and hard about whether to put it away for the sake of not riling up people I thought might be anti-Semitic. In the end I didn’t, and I’m glad. The locals were friendly and respectful. It taught me something about stereotyping and how it goes both ways.

“What about respect for the tradition?” When his Holocaust-survivor mother came to visit from Israel several months ago, he wanted to show her how it really is here, so he took her to a local Conservative synagogue. She was so offended by the sight of men and women sitting together, all wearing tallit and kippah, that she didn’t speak to him for a week. 

“Are you offended by my wearing a kippah,” I asked him. 

“No, but my mother probably would be.” 

What would she think about me, a woman pursuing rabbinic ordination? Would she even have a box to put me in? I am not Jewish the way she is Jewish, his story made that clear. My kippah would be the least of her objections, or maybe the most. In her world, I am perhaps barely Jewish — a novice Hebrew speaker, who doesn’t know how to keep kosher and who routinely watches a family movie after Shabbat dinner for the sake of sh’lom bayit. She and I have gender in common, and motherhood, but what would we find to share about our respective Jewishness? 

“There’s a group of women,” he said. He invoked Sarah Silverman so he could leverage my familiarity with the comedian to refer me to her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman. He seemed surprised when I was familiar with both Silvermans. (I didn’t blow his mind by saying that one of Rabbi Silverman’s children had once babysat mine.) “It’s provocative, who do they think they are, coming to pray, disrupting the men’s prayers?” 

He asked if I would come to the Kotel to pray, and I said yes. “Would you come with the disrupters?” 

“Of course. I want to pray with my people.” 

“But that’s what the women’s section is for!”

I started to wonder about the power of religious symbols. When I wear a kippah, what it means to me and what it means to others varies widely. Who gets to own the meaning of these symbols? Who owns that pile of golden stones, the last surviving wall of our people’s ancient place? Who gets to say who prays there?

We are family and perhaps fellow believers, but we are not having the same conversation, most of the time.

I also wonder, why am I freer to be the kind of Jewish I am, here in the US than I would be in the Jewish Homeland?

“Listen, I hate the ultra-Orthodox,” he says. “Most Israelis do. But let me tell you. If you go to Jerusalem wearing a kippah, they will stone you. Believe me. I’m not even kidding. They will stone you.”

Where does stoning fall, in the rubric of klal Yisrael, I wonder.

If most Israelis hate the ultra-Orthodox, why don’t they speak up? Why doesn’t he speak up? He warns me about them, but he wouldn’t stand up to them for my right to be Jewish the way I am Jewish?

Who’s in and who’s out?

Would he stand up against a non-Jew in my defense? Where are the places where we are the same? What’s the boundary of peoplehood, and does it shift according to who’s issuing the threats?

And what does he expect from me? Do I have a say, since I am not in Israel, facing the dangers that Israelis face on a daily basis?

The man and I have a long conversation, right there in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Midway through, a friend I hadn’t seen in many months approaches and gives me a hug. “So good to see you!” “So good to see you, too! It’s been a long time.” 

I consider saying Shehecheyanu, just to see how he would respond.

I turn back. He’s still there.

Parshat Va’era

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Samuel Beckett’s searing words from Waiting for Godot seem to sum up the national mood just now. Many of my recent conversations have been shot through with sadness and exhaustion, feelings I have felt at times myself, deeply. There is a real cognitive dissonance between the life we are trying to live and the life we are actually living. The world around us is staggeringly abnormal, but as a society, we seem to have made the collective agreement to act as if it’s pretend-normal. We meet in person, hidden behind masks. We might hug, but then we back up ארבע אמות (four cubits) to secure our perimeters. At the same time, we attempt to churn through our daily tasks trying to keep everything going, all the while haunted by a sense of dread and uncertainty. The things we expect of ourselves (productivity, energy, gratitude) don’t account for how broken many of us feel. When a nearly two-year pandemic with no end in sight is not even the only problem on people’s minds, that’s saying something.

There is a phrase in this week’s parsha that speaks beautifully to this swirl of anxiety and overwhelm and crisis – קוצר רוח. I’ll leave it untranslated for now as we think through it together. Picking up the story where we left off last week: Moshe has made his first attempt with Pharaoh, trying to follow God’s instruction and free Bnei Yisrael. It did not go as planned — at least not as Moshe had planned. Instead of agreeing to Moshe’s request, Pharaoh made life much worse for the Israelites, turning the screws to make their work even harder. To the task of making bricks, Pharaoh added a step: the Israelites now must gather their own straw, before they can make the bricks. Yet their quotas remain unchanged.

More work, harsher conditions, same rigorous expectations. Sounds about right.

So in Parshat Va’era, Moshe comes to deliver a rousing message from God, saying that help is on the way, that God is in the wings ready to make everything OK, that great things are in store once they get out of there! God promises to take the Israelites as God’s own people (לְעָם — as a man takes a woman לְאִשָׁה). Yet when Moshe relays God’s promise, his words fall on ears that are not deaf but numb – the people just can’t

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָֽׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה 

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃

And Moshe did speak to the children of Israel, but they didn’t hear him,
because of the קוצר רוח and the backbreaking work.

Rashi, the Medieval French Torah commentator, says this קוצר רוח is shortness of breath: 

כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא מֵצֵר, רוּחוֹ וּנְשִׁימָתוֹ קְצָרָה, 

וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַאֲרִיךְ בִּנְשִׁימָתוֹ:

Everyone who is in distress, his spirit and his breath are short, and he cannot lengthen his breath — a person experiencing קוצר רוח just can’t catch a decent breath.

On the other hand, the 18th century Moroccan scholar, the Or haChaim, sees it as a shortness of breadth. Picking up on the other meaning of ruach, having to do with spirit, the Or haChaim argues that since the Israelites had yet to receive Torah, they were not able to hear Moshe’s message; without Torah, they were stuck in a narrow-minded place.

I am inclined to agree with him. To me, the קוצר רוח is not specifically about the breath aspect but rather about being crushed in spirit. As we saw last week, the people were in a place of severe degradation, with multiple overlapping calamities weighing on them. Seeing their children murdered, being worked to the bone, losing their connection to beloved traditions and customs… Having to gather their own straw was the least of it, but perhaps also the last straw. They were so compromised that Moshe’s hopeful message in this week’s parsha was impossible to take on board. The role of fatigue in crises of faith cannot be overestimated.

At this moment it seems hopeless, like the first half of the couplet from Godot: I can’t go on. The קוצר רוח feels insurmountable.

But here’s the second half of the couplet: I’ll go on. As is so often the case in our tradition, the seeds of redemption are planted in the soil of the harshest experiences. In Parshat Shmot, the cries of the Israelites rise up and God begins to take notice. In chapter 2, verse 25, the people have God’s full attention:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים׃

And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.

The Midrash Aggadah reads this pasuk through the language of רחמנות, referencing that great sufferer איוב (Job). What God knew was that the Israelites saw themselves as blameless, distraught like איוב — incapable of pity for their own anguish but rather אֶמְאַס חַיָּי — sick and tired of their own lives. This is קוצר רוח; a people that has become degraded and hopeless. But God won’t leave us in that state. God’s knowing is rooted in a deep empathy for Bnei Yisrael’s plight: יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו — I know my people’s pain. And God keeps the wheel turning.

The road back from such desperation is long and brutal. The plagues and their associated trauma are just beginning in this parsha. The agonies of slavery are layered over with a deep sense of uncertainty about whether and when freedom will come, and what it will cost. The Israelites will not breathe deeply for some time — as they witness bizarre and horrible things all around them. Meanwhile Moshe struggles with Pharaoh, with God, and with himself, poised between, “I can’t go on,” and, “I’ll go on.”

Luckily we know the story; we know how it ends (and doesn’t). We know that God will redeem Bnei Yisrael, and that redemption will be harder than anyone imagined. We know that it will be agonizingly incomplete, not just for Moshe but for us. We will move forward, fall back, see signs of hope and see our hopes dashed. We will be boxed in, locked down, worried and aching with loss. We will have moments when we again are gathering our own straw. We will have moments where we, too, can’t breathe, moments when our spirits are crushed. And yet we will have moments of triumph even so. Eventually things will be different. Not perfect, not necessarily even better. But a space will open up, where we can begin to hear and see and know…and breathe. And God will meet us there.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Say it with me.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

2021/5782 Yom Kippur Sermon

Shana tova! Thank you for the pleasure of bringing in the new year with you, and for the honor of offering a few words of Torah today. As I scanned both the landscape and my inner stirrings for what to speak about today, I was struck by just how many threads there are to pull. I could address any number of pressing global issues: the ongoing public health crisis and its economic, mental health, and social aftershocks; the growing outcry for racial and economic justice; the catastrophic weather that practically screams in our ears that climate change is looming closer than any of us feels ready to reckon with; and a society in which the values of freedom and individualism are in mortal conflict with the communal commitment of caring for one another. The world feels like too much to take in, and yet the need to pay attention and take action is more urgent than ever. 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted. Don’t misunderstand me; I am happy with my life and I deeply recognize my many blessings. Yet I often find myself wanting to pull the covers over my head because there is just so much turmoil — calamity everywhere I look. 

And then the question comes to me, over and over: What do we do when we feel overwhelmed and caught in the middle, when the forces swirling around us start to feel like drowning? When is it a moment for reflection, and when is it a moment for action? 

Which is it now?

Of course it is now — and always — both. Our texts for this season point us in both directions, toward introspection and discernment and toward the never ending work of tikkun olam

Both reflection and action constitute a kind of presence to the Divine — whether it is presence to the still, small voice that guides us on our way, or presence with the righteous work that still, small voice calls us to. 

I have been reflecting a lot on both types of presence lately. In this historical moment we are more acutely aware than ever of presence and absence. The great blessing of being in the same space as other people is something whose importance many among us hadn’t fully realized until it became a scarce commodity. All those months of missing people or of seeing them only behind a mask or onscreen lent an air of unreality, of watered-down-ness to our relationships. This past year and a half, I think we have come to realize how much our sense of the presence of others is rooted in seeing their faces. In Hebrew, the word פָּנִים neatly encompasses this idea: its definitions include both face and presence. In the inflected form ָלְפָנֶיך heard so often throughout our liturgy, it means, “before you” — literally in your presence and in front of your face.

Psalm 27, which many of us recite daily from the beginning of Elul through the end of Sukkot, offers a rich meditation on the idea of connecting face and presence. Verse 8 reads: 

לְךָ  אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי — אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ׃

This is a puzzling verse, one which opens up a theological question. A traditional approach to the Biblical Hebrew yields the translation, On Your behalf, my heart says to me, “Seek My face!” and I do seek Your face, o God. The psalmist’s heart advocates on the part of God, imploring for the speaker to seek out the presence of God. The Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra likens the heart to God’s שליח, God’s representative. He sees the heart as a Divine internal compass calling the Psalmist into stillness and searching. However, a more contemporary interpretation of this verse, taking into account modern Hebrew usage, switches the roles around — My heart says to You, “Seek my face!” O God, I seek Your face. In this reading, the Psalmist is asking for God to recognize him, and pledging to do the same. This reciprocal recognition, which posits both God and the Psalmist as seekers, changes the theology, casting the still, small voice as… more of a duet. The next verse continues: אַל־תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי Do not hide your face from me. The stakes are high, located in the fear of not connecting, of all of this searching being met with nothing. Yet the psalmist persists. The last verse reads:

קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃

Hope toward Adonai! Keep your heart strong and courageous, and hope toward Adonai! Regardless of who is doing the seeking, the psalm invites us into quiet reflection and hope, even amidst turmoil, asking us to search for the presence of God and wait. 

Our Haftarah for today, on the other hand, demands that we act. This fiery speech from the prophet Isaiah is full of action words, exhortations, imperatives — Build up a highway! Clear the path! Remove the obstacles! You can practically see Isaiah shaking his fists, trying to get his people to pay attention. Isaiah derides the people who fast in body only, while remaining spiritually unmoved. Such empty ritual strips the fast of its meaning and import. Rather, Isaiah says: “This is the fast I desire: to open the bonds of wickedness, shake off the yoke, let the oppressed go free! Share your bread with the hungry, take the poor into your home, clothe the naked! Do not turn away from your flesh and blood!” He goes on to promise that if our fasting and introspection inspire us to do those things, then the presence of God will be with us.

אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח
וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ כְּבוֹד יְהֹוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ

Then your light will burst forth like the dawn, and you will immediately return to flourishing. And your righteousness will walk before you, the presence of God will gather you in.

Where Psalm 27 calls for reflection, Isaiah urges us to press that reflection into service, to take up our sacred task of tikkun olam. The values of stillness and action are not in conflict but rather in dialogue. Our alternate Torah reading for today, from Deuteronomy chapter 29, says: 

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

The hidden things are for God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children, to enact all of these teachings into eternity. So, yes, the quiet matters are between us and God — discerning, reflecting, finding our way. But once we’ve found that way, we must stand tall and translate thoughts into deeds.

The activist Sandra Steingraber wrote, “We are all musicians in a great human orchestra, and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You are not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what instrument you hold and play it as well as you can. You are required to find your place in the score. What we love we must protect. That’s what love means. From the right to know and the duty to inquire flows the obligation to act.”

Steingraber’s words are a summons to righteousness, an echo of the principle from Pirkei Avot that we are not required to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it. Each of us has a role to play, no matter how humble and incomplete. We need simply to find our place, to do something.

My blessing for you this Yom Kippur is for deep, soul-filling reflection that nourishes you toward action, in whatever direction you are called. 

Gmar chatima tova!

Come learn with me!

I’m teaching another course this fall through Hebrew College’s Open Circles Jewish Learning, and I’d love for you to join the group! We will meet on Sunday evenings in November and early December, from 7:30-9pm on zoom. Tuition is $135 for the series, and generous scholarship support is available.

Course details are below.

A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: Ecclesiastes

This course begins with the passage in Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) that inspired the famous Pete Seeger song, “Turn, turn, turn,” and moves on to consider the emotional, spiritual, and psychological problems and resonances in the Book of Ecclesiastes as a whole. We will study that famous passage and others, slowly and deliberately, in multiple English translations, and relate what we find in the sacred text to our own lives. This is a course for deep thinkers, seekers of meaning, and people who like to consider profound questions from multiple angles. Studying Ecclesiastes offers us the strength and wisdom that comes with taking “the long view” of human affairs. Join us for meaningful study, reflection, and conversation!

Click here to register.