God appears, Vayeira 5782

The weekly Torah portion, Vayeira, includes Genesis 18:1-22:24. The first two verses are as follows:

The LORD appeared to him;“וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ ה֔
by the cashew trees [terebinths] of Mamreבְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א
he was sitting at the entrance of the tent וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל
as the day grew hotכְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם ׃
Looking up, he sawוַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא
and look, three menוְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים
standing near him.נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו
As soon as he saw them,וַיַּ֗רְא
he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them,וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל
bowing to the ground. וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃

The first sentence includes the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter proper name of God. Rather than writing out that holy Hebrew word, I replaced it with a ה״, indicating “HaShem” — “The Name” is the way this word is referred to when not praying or formally studying holy scripture. When praying or studying, Jews do not pronounce this name and replace it with the word “A’donai,” which is usually translated as “The LORD,” though it actually means “my Lord.” The word A’donai is often used as a name of God, even written in the Hebrew text using the letters of that word (as in the formula for a Jewish prayer). It can also be used to refer to human rulers. As my Hebrew professor, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, is fond of reminding us: context matters.

Recognizing the Presence of God

When we choose to see what is around us and within us, we have the opportunity to bring holiness into the world. Avraham Avinu, Abraham our forefather, felt the presence of God. He paused from his busy day to connect with God. The content of that conversation is not provided — instead, we swiftly move to Avraham interrupting that holy moment in order to greet strangers approaching his tent.

Getting wrapped up in myself

These two simple lines have torn me open in the last week, as I have wrestled with the implicit expectation within them. Perhaps, like me, you have heard that Judaism prioritizes welcoming the stranger. Yet, can you imagine interrupting your prayers in order to offer a stranger food and drink? When you are in the flow of creation, or in a rhythm at work — are you able to graciously stop yourself and joyfully welcome an interruption?

For much of my life, I prioritized becoming “the best me” I could be. I relentlessly pursued knowledge. I wanted to completely understand the world of work. So, when working as a secretary for a magazine, I religiously read Ad Age magazine. Then, when Twitter came along, I drank in the fire hose of information pouring through that medium.

I walled myself off from other people. Never intentionally. I listened to podcasts while walking with my kids. I read a book while waiting for a class to begin. These simple actions, which were full of good intentions, left me separated from the people surrounding me. Our current time of relative isolation woke me up to the ways in which I was already separated from the physical world.

Making space for God in the age of smartphones

So I choose to follow Avraham Avinu’s example. Whatever I am doing, it can wait. Choosing to be fully present to the people around me, deepens me. Experiencing a six year-old’s inner logic is a truly enlightening experience. You might notice that prayer is not my husband’s jam. Whereas, I’m happiest spending a full day, or a full week, immersed in prayer and study. Living into the beauty of traveling through life deeply connected to people unlike yourself can be soul-expanding. In addition to reflecting on Vayeira, I’ve been pondering how fast the last decade went by. Tomorrow is my tenth anniversary and yesterday was my son’s sixth birthday.

What does “God” mean?

I started by chanting the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Most of the time, Jewish sources claim that there are many barriers between human experience and God. This portion begins by declaring that God, using God’s unspeakable proper name, appeared before Avraham. Do you think God was more fully present in the world during the Bronze Age than today? Do we have the ability to sense God’s presence? Looking down at our phones, is it possible to sense spiritual shifts?

Define God to make religious experience possible

For a long time, these questions never occurred to me. Stories of our forefathers did not pierce my consciousness. The Bible felt unrelated to modern life. I avoided Jewish religious practice because I was certain that I did not believe in the judgmental God of the Bible.

Until adulthood, I did not know there are a multitude of ways to describe God from a Jewish perspective.

No single set of beliefs in Judaism

Jewish understandings of the world and God changed over time. Our civilizations were influenced by the people around us. Our intellectuals constantly communicated with Christian and Muslim scholars. Since Judaism began before the Christian idea of “religion,” we are not tied to a single set of beliefs. Instead, our culture defines us. What we do distinguishes us from other people.

Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to be an agnostic Jew. Or even an atheist Jew. My goal is not to convince you to believe like me. Rather, I hope that together we can make space for questions and disagreement. 

For me, I am constantly seeking more precise ways to understand God. Yes, I want a definition of what I believe. I also need a coherent set of descriptions of God in order to sink into prayer. God is likely to be spoken about in every Jewish prayer service. So what does all the God language in prayers mean? And how does the God in prayers relate to my lived experience?

Describing God allows us to sink in prayer

Let’s try to define God.  Do you see God as directly responding to prayers?

Do you think our spiritual energy can help heal the people around us and the souls within us?

Does prayer help you connect with God?

What does the formula of Jewish prayers mean to you?

Our prayer formula begins:

בָּרוּךְ אָתָּה ה״ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם

“Baruch atah A’donai, E’loheinu melech ha’olam”

Traditionally, this is translated as: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe.” 

Those same Hebrew words can be understood as: “Source of Blessing are You, Ground of Being; Our God, Sovereign of spiritual reality.”

When we make space for alternative English translations of well-known Hebrew phrases, we open ourselves up to the worlds contained within each word. May we each find a word or phrase to meditate into this week, so that we can recognize when the Divine is appearing in our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

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