Can you believe it’s 2015? Don’t you just want to stop the train, keep time from moving relentlessly forward, and freeze the moment? I think this is kind of a natural, universal human desire. We long for certainty in an uncertain world, we long for stability in a world of constant change. The world waits for no one, and from the little I understand of physics, even things that appear to us to be stable and solid are actually in constant motion. Time waits for no one- it moves relentlessly forward.
We have entered the book of Shemot, the book of names. This week’s parsha begins with a reminder from God that the name El Shaddai was the name by which God was revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they did not know God’s name as yod-hey-vav-hey. It makes sense that when we try to name ultimate reality, when we apply names to God, we use terms like- HaMakom- the place; Tzur- the Rock; Magen- the shield. We suggest images of strength and eternity, images that imply constancy. We imagine God as something solid and unchanging.
We are blinded by our own desire. If only life would just hold still for a minute so that we could frame our photo and get a better shot. Just for a moment. Elizabeth Berg expresses this thought poetically with the following metaphor- “I feel like I’m walking around carrying a really full- overly full- bowl of water. When I don’t look at it, nothing spills.” (The Year of Pleasures, p. 157) She continues, “Seriously. I felt like I’d just realized the world was made of glass.” (ibid., p. 15)
In Jewish tradition, God has many names, reflecting our unique perceptions of the Divine. We give God many names. Yet, when Moses stands at the burning bush and asks the Holy One directly- “What is your name?” God’s response is, Ehye asher Ehye, I will be what I will be, or, I am becoming what I am becoming, acknowledges that God is in essence beyond naming, that God is in a process of becoming and can’t be confined within the boundaries of a name.
In his classic work, You Shall Be As Gods, Erich Fromm expounds on this paradox: “It says God is, but his being is not completed like that of a thing, but is a living process, a becoming; only a thing, that is, that which has reached its final form, can have a name. . . Only idols have names, because they are things. The “living” God cannot have a name.” (p. 27)
Ultimately we must each find our own names for God. Becoming free, the slaves must learn, means that life is now uncertain, it is a process of discovery. The lesson, for them and for us, is that if God is in a process of becoming, so, inevitably, are we, who are fashioned in the image of HaShem. Each individual has the possibility of bringing God into history in a unique way.
How liberating! How exhilarating! How frustrating! We want God to hold still so that we can know God’s essence, and God taunts us with this response- you can never know my essence- I will be what I will be, I am becoming what I am becoming. And not only can you never know ME, says God. All of life is a process of change. There are no answers. One question leads to another. One answer generates another question.
The Jewish story begins with God’s call to Avram and Sarai to leave their home, to wander, to become seekers- and we are still the people of Israel thousands of years later, we are still the tribe of those who struggle with God. Our spiritual path is that path of questioning, the path of “what if?”, the path of- there’s always another point of view and let’s argue it just for sport. We cannot, in the words of Irwin Kula, “institutionalize the infinite.” (Yearnings, p. 17) As we are made in the image of God, he suggests, we are also in a constant process of becoming. “No wonder,” he writes, “the Hebrew word for life is plural: Hayim means lives.” (p. 26)
I recently had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Kula speak when he visited our community, and it lead me back to his book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. As the title implies, he advises surrender to uncertainty and even proposes that such surrender can be liberating. Rather than longing for 100% certainty, he notes that if we can act from only 51% certainty, that we may be more compassionate towards ourselves and more accepting of the potential 2d and 3d order unintended consequences of our decisions. If things DO work out as we hope, we will be less invested in the results, understanding that they may only be temporary. Thirdly, our sense of compassion will be expanded as we look at the decisions that others make; we can move from our own place of judgment and yearning for absolutes. (p. 95)
George Eliot writes poignantly of our inability to reach a place of stability and assurance in her book Felix Holt- “So our lives glide on: the river ends we don’t know where, and the sea begins, and then there is no more jumping ashore.” (p. 360) We don’t know where it happened or how it happened, but we are caught up in the stream of our lives, it’s 2015, and like the Holy One in whose image we are made, we are becoming who we are becoming and there’s no turning back.
I love this answer- Ehye Asher Ehye—it makes me believe, if not in the Divine authorship of the Torah, in the Divine inspiration of the text, because it is so profound that it seems beyond human imagining. We may want easy answers, or, even hard answers- but some answers, some certainty. And yet- our lives glide on and the journey continues.
I’m haunted by an image that I saw of AirAsia Flight 8501. As the rescue operation proceeded, and the first bodies were recovered, the rescuers carried the first caskets, labeled 001, 002. I don’t know about you, but I take airplane travel pretty much for granted. On some subconscious level I know that there is danger, but how could any of us function if we really thought about all of the things that can go wrong when we leave our homes each day. Listen to the words of this beautiful contemporary prayer-
A Modern Traveler’s Prayer- Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg
A prayer for the journey
We could say it every day
When we first leave the soft warmth of our beds
And don’t know for sure if we’ll return at night…
When we get in the trains, planes & automobiles
And put our lives in the hands of many strangers.
Or when we leave our homes for a day, a week, a month or more,
Will we return untouched by flood or fire…
to a home at peace?
How will our travels change us?
What gives us the courage to go through that door?
A prayer for the journey.
For the journey we take in this fragile vessel of flesh.
A finite number of years and we’ll reach
The unknown, where it all began.
Every life, every day, every hour is a journey.
In the travel is the discovery, the uncertainty,
The wisdom, the joy…
even the despair.
Every life, every day, every hour is a journey.
And setting forth is the reward, the blessing, and peace.
The uncertainty. That’s what this name of God captures in such a profound way. I will be what I will be, I am becoming what I am becoming- there is NO certainty. The only thing constant is change.
Let me conclude with Rabbi Kula’s amazing midrash on a classic nursery rhyme:
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” “It’s an edgy tale,” the rabbi writes, “even for grownups. From a young age, our deepest fear is that we’re Humpty Dumpty, that we’ll fall and shatter into so many pieces that no one will be able to put us back together again; that we’ll be dispersed across the face of the earth and be alone in our brokenness. The story makes us wonder if we haven’t already fallen and become irreparably splintered. The ditty makes light of the very real fear and helps to soften it. But,” he asks, “what if we taught this story differently. Maybe Humpty jumped. Maybe he was stuck . . . on top of that wall and wanted desperately to get down. Maybe the “great fall” was actually a deepening and expansion of his consciousness- a startling vision of his many selves. What if Humpty didn’t want to be what the king wanted him to be? He didn’t want to be put back together again; to be an egg so full of the promise of life but giving birth to nothing. He didn’t want to reach for the heavens; he wanted to be down on earth where the action is. What if what really happened is that he hatched?” (p. 301)
“Life,” write Byron Sherwin and Seymour Cohen (How to Be A Jew, p 15), “is a gift in the form of an enigma.” That is why this enigmatic name of God, this Ehye Asher Ehye, is God’s answer to the question, “What is your name?” We have many names for God. God’s answer, thousands of years before Heisenberg, is that uncertainty is the foundation of the universe. We can deny it, we can hate it, we can fight it, yet- it is reality. As we reflect on the uncertainty of our lives and the ever-changing nature of reality, we pray for the ability to take this deep understanding and build upon it a spiritual foundation of appreciation and awe in every moment of our lives.