“Does your face light up when your children walk into the room?” Toni Morrison, in an interview with Oprah, said that she used to think that fussing over her children’s appearance was a way of showing care, but that was not what they were looking for. There is a habit in my family where a mother must pick a piece of string, or hair, or fuzz off their child’s outfit before going out into the world. My mother tells the story of my grandmother even retrieving a piece of string, putting it on my mom, and then removing it when there was nothing there to remove upon first inspection. I chalk this up to superstition, probably having to do with the Evil Eye: a deeply rooted, generational-trauma informed coping mechanism observed widely in the Jewish world, but Morrison’s quote makes me think there is more here to explore.
In our parsha this week, Vayera, we find Abraham seated at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day, recovering from his self-circumcision (eek). “The Eternal appeared before Abraham…Looking up he saw three men standing opposite him! He ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them.” (Genesis 18:1-2) It is hot. Abraham is old and in pain. But he sees God in the faces of the three men standing before him and rushes to greet them. The value of hachnasat orchim, Jewish hospitality is derived from these verses. We often think of hospitality as something we extend to those outside of our families but imagine what would happen if we turned that attention towards those we see on a regular basis.
My grandmother, and my mother (and probably generations of matriarchs before them) were in the habit of saying, “I see you,” by lovingly adjusting, removing, fussing. I, too, fall into this habit when I see my child: cuffing a pant leg, or adjusting a crooked collar. I fear that the implied message to this fussing is, “I see you, and I love you, but something about you needs fixing.” Morrison’s question reminds me of Abraham, nearly leaping off the page to greet his guests, eyes lighting up at their approach. When your children appear before you, do you fuss, or do you delight? Perhaps the one can transform into the other as we practice really seeing the children entrusted into our care, and delighting in their beautiful, sacred, messiness.
Lech L’cha, translated as, “go forth,” or “get going,” or, intriguingly, “go towards yourself.” This week’s parsha introduces us to Abram and his journey. No sooner do we meet him and his wife Sarai than God sends him away from his birthplace, to a land that will be revealed, but as we know from Joseph Campbell’s reading of The Hero’s Journey, the journey is what counts.
A midrash on the parsha (Tanchuma, Lech L’cha 3) compares Abram to a sealed container of perfumed oil, hidden in a cemetery – bottled up and kept in a place where there is no life. Once Abram set forth, though, that beautiful fragrance was taken up, spread around, and made familiar throughout the world.
My favorite poem in all of Mishkan T’fillah, “Becoming,” penned by a member of our community, Rabbi Norman Hirsh, is inspired by this week’s parsha (I quote it frequently):
Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha – Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don’t like leaving
But God loves becoming.
While our “radical leavings,” may only occur once or twice in a lifetime, we make the choice to get out and go forth in the world in our own way every single day. Whether we work from home, or outside of it, with people or on our own, each day requires a choice to go forth. For some of us, getting out of bed is a radical act of bravery. I love that the saga of our ancestors begins with this command for it is universal in its simplicity and urgency. We go outward, and we dial inward, and by doing both at the same time, commanded and encouraged by a compassionate God, we offer our beautiful, unique, singular fragrance to the world.
The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is here! Today is the 9th day, which means the moon is making its way from a sliver to a grin in the sky. I love this sweet month. It is a welcome respite from the High Holy day preparations of Elul, and the hustle and bustle of holiday after holiday in Tishrei. Because it has no holy days in it, the ancients referred to this month as MarCheshvan or Bitter Cheshvan. Just because there is no specific holy day in it does not mean that it is bitter – what a tragic worldview. The no-thing-ness of this month is its beauty. It’s a chance to slow down, to let the pace of the new year settle in, for regular old regularity to arrive, and with it, some peace of mind.
While things are far from being “back to normal,” (I just got home from what is becoming my monthly Covid test), I find the pull of the current that rushes in that direction to be nearly all-consuming. Most frightening to me, other than the threat of Covid, is the threat of losing the sacred relationship with time that has developed over the pandemic. Shabbat became a sweet relief, an anchor in time, something to look forward to in the undifferentiated days of working from home. I’ve written about the powerful ritual of baking challah, time for which is slipping away as the demands of the outside world pull at me. This Cheshvan, my intention is to slow down. To sit in no-thing-ness. Not to fill the time but to notice it, even when those hours at home with my 3-year-old stretch out like a marathon before me.
The holy days of the Hebrew calendar aren’t about celebrating special time, but reminding us that time, itself, is special. May this month be for you a MatokCheshvan, a Sweet Cheshvan, as we settle into mindful patterns, build protections around that which matters most, and make time to honor the passing of time.