From Low to High
Here, there, everywhere
The first holiday I ever spent in a hospital was Shavuot. It was 2004 and I had been in the hospital battling a mysterious cardiac condition that was later found to be Prinzmetal Angina. As you can imagine it was a particularly dark period. Not only for the fact that it blew the façade away that as a 17-year-old I was invincible, but also for the theological rupture it created. After all, bad things don’t happen to good people, right?
Where was God and why was I so angry were two of the predominant questions of the moment. As I sat there trying to get in the holiday spirit, our Rabbi came to visit with me. I don’t remember much of the conversation but I do remember being assuaged in my anger. He helped me feel justified in my emotions and there was holiness in that encounter. As I reflect on that, I believe that God was with me in that lowliness and that as much as it’s a holiday to think about the heights on a mountain, Shavuot is also a fitting time to think about God in low places.
The Meor Eynayim, R’Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in a beautiful teaching from Parshat Yitro connects the following verse from Psalms 113,
מִמִּזְרַח־שֶׁ֥מֶשׁ עַד־מְבוֹא֑וֹ מְ֝הֻלָּ֗ל שֵׁ֣ם יְהֹוָֽה
From the rising of the sun until it goes down, God’s name is to be praised.
to the Jewish people’s noteworthy acceptance of the Torah with the words:
נעשה ונשמע–we will do it and we will listen.
He notes through a linguistic midrash that a righteous person is sometimes called a sun. A truly righteous person knows that when things rise and are good, God is worthy of being praised but especially when things goes south and it’s dark, God is also found. That is how naaseh v’nishma works too he says:
This is called we will do before we will listen – even in our falling from our level, to attach to the Blessed God in that level; and afterwards we will listen, since the essence of listening is understanding, meaning that one will come to an even greater level. And this is the essence of receiving the Torah that Israel received, and therefore Blessed God greatly praised them for this: that they accepted the Torah in the fullness of Truth and comprehended Truth, that they would forever be attached to Blessed God and would not separate from God even when they fell from their level.
This is the essence of the Jewish journey. How can we cultivate a practice that is one of the more challenging asks in all of faith? When things go poorly, can you find the Divine just as easily as you do when the sun is shining? As a 17 year old, I was not prepared for this. As a 36 year old, I still struggle with it.
Yet, I am comforted by the teaching of the Meor Eynayim through the lens of “we will do and we will listen.” Because after all, the sun is still there even when we can’t see it.
Sometimes we think we have to know and see everything in order to truly understand. What he is getting at though is that the doing is the persisting through the muck, drudgery, and painstaking parts of life. In that bleakness, God’s presence is there as well. Because if we truly believe the Psalm, שמלא כל הארץ כבודו that all of this world around us is filled The Presence, that really means everywhere.
As we prepare to receive Torah once more, I am back in the hospital room looking at my younger self and also in this present moment. Take stock of where you are. Challenge yourself this year to find divine presence in the low places. Once we can meet there, then we can also rise together once more.
See you at the Mountain.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom