Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior

 

 

 

 

 

Parashat Bo: speaking up against injustice is time critical, though many of us wait for too long

Pharaoh is remembered for his certainty that he is the supreme power, for the battle between him and God that he is drawn into, for God’s deliberately manipulating him so as to make sure he keep his resolve in the battle – the famous hardening of his heart.

But along with this absolute dictator, the early stages of the Book of Exodus gives us little hints of people not accepting his power unquestioningly, sometimes with some civil disobedience, sometimes with some actions or remarks that don’t take him on face to face but clearly demonstrate other viewpoints.

So we have the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who choose to fear God over Pharaoh and who do not follow his orders to destroy the male Hebrew babies at birth. We have the female relative of Pharaoh who must certainly know that the baby she is rescuing and keeping alive is supposed to be killed as an enemy of the state. We have the ordinary Egyptians who are forced to dig around the Nile for fresh water after it has been turned into blood and Pharaoh has returned to his Palace- a picture the bible gives us that surely reflects some of the anger of the people, and finally in chapter 8 with the arrival of the fourth plague, that of the lice, we have the magicians who give voice to their frustration: And the magicians did so with their secret arts to bring forth lice, but they could not; and there were lice upon man, and upon beast.  Then the magicians said to Pharaoh: ‘This is the finger of God’; but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he listened not to them; as the Eternal had spoken.” (8:14-15)

A little while later we get yet another insight into the people’s refusal to follow Pharaoh’s dictatorial stubbornness – the plague of hail is announced 24 hours earlier when Moses says “Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as has not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now.  Now therefore send, hasten in your cattle and all that you have in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.’  He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses; and he that regarded not the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field.(Exodus 9:18-21). The same description that applied to the midwives – Yirat Adonai, the fear or reverence or awe of God – is now applied to the ordinary Egyptians, some of whom are clearly transferring their feelings from Pharaoh to God.

And now here, at the beginning of the sidra Bo, after seven terrible plagues, they are able to challenge Pharaoh directly. As Moses brings the warning of the eighth plague, the bible records that the servants of Pharaoh say to him   “How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Eternal their God, do you not understand yet that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7)

At the very beginning of the story the disobedience is shown by the families who stand to lose a child to Pharaoh’s decree (in particular the family of Moses) and also by the brave women who are themselves described as Yirei Adonai – people who revere God. But when challenged of course they do not say so, instead they hide behind a stereotype of the foreign Hebrew women who, they say, are not like Egyptian women – with the implication that they are somehow less human than the Egyptian women. Only one person with no obvious motive is prepared to disobey the Pharaoh, and that is his unnamed female relative.

The magicians only mutter their disobedience when they are unable to replicate the plagues with their own enchantments. Almost as if to save themselves they attribute the more powerful magic to a more powerful magician. And the ordinary Egyptians who are described as Yirei Adonai become so only in order to protect their material goods. No one actually took on the Pharaoh until after the seventh plague, when Egypt is already, in their words, destroyed.  Finally there are courtiers and advisors who are willing to put their heads above the parapet and challenge Pharaoh. Finally the people who have been in a position of some kind of power are able to dare to use it. It is, sadly, too late though for many Egyptians and others who live in the land, and by now Pharaoh is unstoppable – the complete destruction of the place is assured. They have found the courage to speak up too late.

There is a lesson for us in this – a lesson that Pastor Martin Niemoller most famously gave expression to:

“First they came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

Vayeitzei – Filled with Awe we encounter God

bradford synagogue doorwaybradfordshul outside

ark 2

bradford shul
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. And he was overawed and said “how full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”
The phrase “ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I grew up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.
The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message-
Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.
And Secondly that awe is a necessary instinct, God is, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for. We have lost the ability to be shocked.” Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.
In Judaism, believing is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement. The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told that someone doesn’t really believe in God, the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.
When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.
Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will”

Vayigash

            The scene in which Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers is emotionally charged and powerfully transmitted to us. Overcome by his feelings in response to Judah’s plea that him that he keep Judah as his slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph clears the room and, left alone with his brothers, he introduces himself and asks the urgent question:  “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?”  I am Joseph. Does my father still live?”  Unsurprisingly the brothers are too shocked to respond, so Joseph has to continue and introduce himself in a slightly different way – “Ani Yosef achee’chem – I am Joseph your brother.”  Then he begins to reassure his stricken brothers, pointing out to them how the whole chain of events that has brought them here must be managed by God, from the selling of Joseph in Dotan to the famine which had brought them all to Egypt.  The reconciliation between brothers, a theme that has been avoided since Cain killed Abel at the beginning of Genesis is finally happening, with the stated guilt and repentance on the part of the wrong doers, the punishment exacted by the wronged party, the forgiveness on both sides – and the recognition of God’s part in the problem all along.

            All the way through the Book of Genesis, God has been actively and some may say unhelpfully present in the text, creating situations for people to deal with as best they can, which generally isn’t too edifying for us to read.  Adam and Eve are faced with a forbidden yet deeply tempting fruit tree in their perfect garden- Why?  When they do the inevitable, what happens?  Adam blames Eve, she blames the snake, and they are all forced to move on.  When Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is not – well why not?  We know that there was nothing special about either, but the anger of the rejected Cain led to fratricide within the earliest chapters of the book.  Look where else God meddled – the destruction of Tower of Babel when people were getting on so well together but now were scattered and unable to communicate with each other; Abraham told to bind his beloved son Isaac as an offering for God, and consequently damaging his relationship with Isaac (and God) irreparably.  Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb, predestined to have an unequal relationship.  And yet no one calls God on it, no one confronts God’s role until Joseph does. 

            Joseph, the assimilated Jew.  The man who to all intents and purposes became Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, and Egyptian wife, and Egyptian children.  Joseph, the boy who dreamed his dreams, who showed little of what we might call spirituality in his vanity laden adolescence.   Yet paradoxically it is Joseph who describes himself as one who fears God – et ha’elohim ani yarei (42:18). 

            It is a curious verb – yod resh alef – meaning “to venerate, be in awe or fear”.  Until Joseph’s use of it, it is not used positively, nor is it used about God, – except once in the akedah when God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, for now he knows he is a Godfearing man (ki yarei elohim ata  Gen 22:12)  But it is already too late in Abraham’s case, for whatever the test was up on that mountain, Abraham had not passed it for he never spoke to his son Isaac or to God again. 

            Only Joseph describes himself as one who is in awe of God, who fears and admires and reverences God.  And only Joseph uses this verb in a positive way – that he will be, to coin a phrase, honest decent and truthful in his dealings with the foreigners whom only he knows to be his brothers.  It is Joseph’s use of the verb to describe himself and the positive essential value which drives him,  which makes him the candidate to effect the sibling reconciliation which has for so long been so elusive in the family story.  Finally there is a person who sees yirat adonai, the fear and awe of God, as a positive statement about themselves and their lives.  It is the characteristic which enables the person to know a little about the Almighty with whom they are dealing, to know a little about how little they know, to avoid the cosiness which can beset such a relationship and also the projections which can blur it.  Yirat adonai is, as the psalmist wrote, “t’horah, omedet la’ad”  – pure, standing forever. (Ps19) – it enables us to be clear eyed in our dealings with God, and to understand a little, and engage a little.  So it is no surprise that towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is able to see God’s part in the events of his life, and, once his brothers have shown their shame and their unhappiness at what they did, (and Joseph has satisfied his own need to show how his early dreams were indeed correct), that he is able to acknowledge and forgive not only his brothers part in the way his life has turned out, but also God’s part in it too.

            The search for meaning in our lives is something we all do, whether in a religious structure, or in another philosophical framework or setting.  Those of us who use the religious tradition find in it many complex and often mutually incompatible things.  We can be overwhelmed by the richness of interpretations, constrained by our own needs and our own baggage.

 Interestingly, that same psalmist who praised yirat adonai, listed his six stakes of Judaism as being

Torat Adonai (the Teaching of God), Edut Adonai (the Evidence of God), Pikudei Adonai (the Duties of God), Mitzvat Adonai (the Commandments of God), Yirat Adonai (the Fear of  God) and Mishp’tei Adonai (the Judgments of God).  Taken together in the poem they make a bridge that links heaven and earth.  No mention is made of a required belief, or of much that people often say is core to religion-  instead there is teaching and witnessing, doing and considering, acting and fearing – these are what bring people closer to God. 

Joseph, Egyptianised, assimilated, the boy who never tried to contact his home again, is saying in this statement about himself that he never lost his love for his roots, that he was religious in his own way, in the best way – for he was one who could say “et ha elohim ani yarei”.

            The episode where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reconciled with them takes place within one chapter. The beginning of it is bound by the question that Joseph asks his brothers “Ha’od avi chai?” -does my father still live?    The end is  marked by Jacob’s disbelieving statement “Rav, Od Yosef b’ni chai”   It is too much – Joseph my son yet lives.

            The echo is too deliberate, too obvious to miss. The whole episode is a complex and beautiful literary structure, and at its heart is the point where Joseph kissed all his brothers, and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him.   It is for this that Jacob still lived, for this that Joseph’s life was spared.  The reconciliation enables us to finally close that first chapter in the moral development of humanity, when it can be shown that even great and terrible hurts can be forgiven and laid to rest.  All it takes is  Yirat Adonai:  not the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God, not the fearful and self serving one that Cain had, nor the argumentative one Abraham had, nor the timid one of Isaac nor the bargaining one of Jacob.  The first important person we have in the text  who didn’t have a vision or a face to face conversation was the first person to make explicit that he could see God’s hand in his life.  Joseph was the first to describe God’s part in his misery as well as his great prosperity.  Joseph was the first to lay responsibility not only on his brothers but also on his God.   Yirat Adonai is the prerequisite to relationship with God, it is the first step towards a brit, a covenant of mutual obligation.  With the possible exception of Moses’ view of the back of God, or his death at the kiss of God, we never again see God quite so intimate nor so cosy as he was with the Patriarchs, but Joseph, the link between the Patriarchs and the Peoplehood, gives us another way to God, the way we have to this day.  To live our lives with a sense of the awe and mystery of God, to relate to God as a Power so large and transcendent who yet relates to us, to make our decisions in the light of that sense of God, that is a way to truly be religious.   Whether we are dati or hiloni, Orthodox, orthoprax, scriptural literalists, innovative halachists or identify with any of the many streams within Jewish practise and identity, however we express our religious sense this sidra reminds us that to have a sense of awe about God, to be y’rei Adonai, is the core of our religion. And from this sense of awe and awareness, everything else can flow.