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

 

 

 

 

 

Vayetzei: Jacob throws his hat into the ring and sets the scene for some mad hattery

Many years ago I heard that the mitzvah of Jewish men covering their heads came from this sidra Vayetzei. “But where in Vayetzei does the text speak of headcoverings?” I asked. The response was both humorous and instructive. I was told “It begins “Vayetzei Yaakov” “And Jacob went out”. And surely he would not go out without wearing a hat”

Now it might cause a groan, but it also shows up a few different ways of treating text in Jewish tradition. Firstly the need to find a biblical source to underpin a cherished practise – in this case head covering for which there is no such explicit source. Secondly the willingness to read back into the text in order to root an established view. Thirdly the willingness to use whatever it takes to make a point,

In bible, the only people mandated to wear a head covering were the priests when they were ministering in the Temple – the high priest wore a mitznefet, a kind of mitre, and the ordinary priests a migba’at, which is often translated as a turban. By Talmudic times it was clearly an option for men to cover their heads, though women were less free not to do so (“Men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes not; but women’s hair is always covered, and children are always bareheaded.” Nedarim 30b). Children were also not always bare headed – there is a story in Tractate Shabbat about R. Nachman b Isaac whose mother was told by astrologers, Your son will be a thief. [So] she did not let him [be] bareheaded, saying to him, ‘Cover your head so that the fear of heaven may be upon you, and pray [for mercy]’.

The story is about Israel not being governed by astrological forces; instead we make our own choices, and so R Nachman’s mother made him cover his head to remind him of the authority that is located in the heavens (ie wearing a kippah would remind him always of God and so he would not behave badly), but there is a twist in the tale. Because she had not made explicit the reason for his wearing kippah, it had no effect on his behaviour. “One day he was sitting and studying under a palm tree; temptation overcame him, he climbed up and bit off a cluster [of dates] with his teeth” (Shabbat 156b)

Head covering today has become de rigueur for religious Jews. While there is not only no biblical source, there is not even a consensus from the medieval commentators and codifiers as to when and where it is appropriate or necessary to wear kippah, and yet – Jacob went out, and he must have been wearing a hat.

The headcovering in modern times is a signal to others of Jewish status, and a badge that declares the political and denominational attachments of the wearer. The language of head coverings is almost as complex and nuanced as the old fashioned language of flowers. Do you wear a kippah nearer the front or nearer the back of the head? Is it suede or crocheted, satin or velvet or cotton? Is it large or small? Decorated or plain? Black or with colours? Do you use obvious hairpins or Velcro? Do you wear a hat over your kippah? A baseball cap? A streimel? People will know from these small differences if you are a Zionist, a yeshiva bochur, traditional religious, frum, progressive, chareidi….. They will be able to tell whether you are from old school traditions, or follow a more modern line. Your kippah will pigeon hole you in the Jewish world quicker than your accent will betray your class in the UK.

And then of course there is the modern phenomenon of people wearing their allegiances not so much in the coded way of material/size/colour/placement – we now have the rise of the kippah decorated in the colours of the football team of your choice, with their crest and logo, with the name of the team worked around the edge. This version of wearing the heart on the sleeve leads to some pretty robust conversations between young men as they scorn the team whose colours and brand is worn with pride by their friend.

The covering of the head, so unnecessary in biblical times except for the active priesthood, but taken up by some in Talmudic times as an act of piety and in order to remind the wearer of the presence of God, to inculcate a sense of ‘yirat shamayim/ awe of heaven’ has become not so much a prop for spiritual awareness as a prop to advertise to others something less than spiritual. Be it adherence to a particularly introverted and orthodox sect or to show a particularly secular passion for team sports, it now functions as a flag of identity.

There used to be an advert in the UK in the 1930’s which famously stated “if you want to get ahead, get a hat” It was written by Charles Sydney Catlin, who had apparently showed this statement mocked up as a poster in a job interview. He didn’t get the job, but somehow his slogan found its way into the world of headgear advertising, and he used the story as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding one’s work.

The story resonates with the story of headcoverings in Judaism. Just as the really important reason for wearing kippah is as a reminder to the self of context in the world, that there is a Divine presence who sees everything and notices everything – yet it has become a way of signalling one’s identity to others, and the awe of heaven is often far from the consciousness of the regular kippah wearer, so the cleverness of the slogan and its focus on appropriate head gear in order to ‘fit in’ has overlaid the history of the man whose work was taken from him without credit.

We see the surface, we forget the deeper meanings and truths that the surface is pointing to. We signal to others about our affiliations and forget to signal to ourselves the one important affiliation – to fulfil the covenantal relationship with the ever living God.

kippot serugot

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”