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November 8, 2019 Sermon

11/07/2019 09:13:44 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Recently, in Boston, the Argentinian-born composer Osvoldo Golijov premiered his latest song cycle, called Falling Out of Time. The cycle is based on the 2014 novel by Israeli author David Grossman. The novel and song cycle are about a couple, grieving their child, now dead five years. The father, wracked with grief and pain and guilt, and perhaps driven mad, says that he must walk—must go—to where his son is, a journey that his wife knows is impossible. How can you walk to where your loved one has gone when he has died? But he gets up and goes, and soon is joined by others in the town who have lost their children, walking on a pilgrimage with no end. The music, like the novel, is haunting. They raise questions of grief and loss, which Grossman has explored in other novels, himself losing a son in the last Israeli war with Lebanon, but also raises a question of what it means to go.

We use the language of going, of movement, as much in the existential sense as we do in the geographic sense. How often have we talked about going somewhere—or nowhere—not meaning a literal place you can find, but as a state of being? When we ask, ‘where are we going?’, we’re just as likely to be asking about the direction of a particular set of choices, a course of action, a conversation, as we are asking where we are relative to a destination point on a map. We might ask: where are we going

-with this project?

-in this relationship?

-with our goals, our hopes, our dreams?

Likewise, we may use that language of movement to describe forward or backward motion, not just on the road to some place, but on the road of life. When we talk about how our lives, our goals for ourselves, our sense of success, we often use that language.

“I feel like I’m making progress”

“I feel stuck, or like I’m going backwards”

“I feel like the destination is farther and farther away.”

We can’t escape it, even when we check in with each other. How often, when we ask how our friend is, we say “how’s it going?”

These are all metaphors, of course. We can’t actually arrive in our relationships or our projects the way we arrive at Shoprite or a friend’s house. And yet, that language is incredibly evocative. We seem to have this need for that sense of movement in our lives, as if we are going somewhere. That’s the power of the Alvin Fine reading before Kaddish: that life is a journey, made stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.

But a pilgrimage to where?

Which brings us to our Torah reading, which we heard Rabbi Koppel share a few moments ago. Lech Lecha : You, Abram, Go. Go from your land and your birthplace and your family’s home to the land that I will show you, and I will bless you. We know the words, from Debbie Friedman if no one else. And those words Lech Lecha (or in the feminine, lechi lach) just roll off the tongue. They’re wonderfully alliterative. But they also present a problem. Because God doesn’t just say “go” or “you go”. God says, “Go to you”, a turn of phrase that just doesn’t get used that much (though interestingly, it is how God sends Abraham forth in the binding of Isaac story). Why does God say it that way, with this unusual turn of phrase: “Go to you”?

One possibility is that, that’s just how Hebrew works. It’s a quirk of the language. And it is, kinda. But as I said, it doesn’t really work like that.

Rashi, everyone’s favorite medieval French rabbi, suggests a radically different take, that we should read it hyper-literally. Instead of reading it as ‘you go’, we should read Go for yourself. That is, for your own sake; that the going will allow Abram to become Abraham. The going, as Rashi understands it, is now not just a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well. The midrashic Sefer Ha-Yashar takes this even further a few centuries later by saying that Abraham couldn’t realize his full potential unless he left as God commanded, so leaving becomes an act of self-actualization.

I want to take this idea even further: that Avram’s journey is, fundamentally, our journey. That when we talk about life as a journey, when we use that metaphorical language to describe ourselves as progressing or regressing, we are either moving closer to or further away from our selves. Our real selves. Our full potential selves. Our actualized selves. The kindest, most ethical, most thoughtful version of ourselves. That when we ask ourselves where we’re going, what we’re really doing is expressing the sense of distance from who we know we’re meant to be. Not in some grandiose, ego-inflated, delusional idea of the self, but truly in the sense that we can feel the destination, and the distance, in our bones: both our own hope for ourselves and our own disappointment, our own grief, when we fall short. Yet we keep moving forward. If we are fortunate, we might become a person like Connie Kreshtool, who won’t admit it, but who has chosen again and again to journey toward the holy and the right. We dare not mention the alternative. We keep moving forward.

Toward the end of Falling Out of Time, a child’s voice is heard singing a lullaby to the parents: “there is breath, there is breath, inside the pain, there is breath.” To breathe is to journey, even through the pain and loss as well as the hope and joy, toward our real selves. Abram’s journey is full of peril, full of trials, full of triumph and tragedy. Abram’s journey is ours, it is the same, as we move forward, lech lecha, for our own sake. As our prayerbook reminds us, God disturbs us toward our destiny, by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice. We don’t like leaving, but God loves becoming. May we move forward, always, toward our best selves, toward becoming. Amen.

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