This is the D’var Torah for Lekh Lekha I gave the Reconstuctionist minyan in Jerusalem on 11/1/2014:
Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav told the story of a prince who lived far away from his father, the king. The prince was very homesick and missed the king very much. One day, he received a letter from the king, and he was overjoyed and he treasured the letter. But, the letter made him sad and increased his longing to know the king once more. He cried out, “If only I could even touch his hand, if only I could even touch his pinky! Oh how I long to know him!” But then he realized that he had the letter written by the king, and the letter is a way to connect with the king! And then the prince felt a great joy.
In the Rabbi Nahman parable, the king represents God, we are the prince, and Rabbi Nahman’s intention may be for the letter to represent the Torah, but I would like to interpret the letter today as the whole world. Everything we experience in the world is an experience of God.
And so I ask the question, how may we, today, approach the world?
One lens we may use is that of awe. To be in awe is to see the mystery that is the world and to recognize that there is an indescribable meaning beyond the mystery. To be in awe is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, to apprehend with no expectation to comprehend. To be in awe is, as the prince realized, to see the letter and to realize the king, or, in other words, to see the king’s handwriting within the letter. This attitude is summed up in Isaiah with the statement, “Holy, holy, holy is God, the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” The approach of awe is, as Heschel said, the beginning of wisdom. This is one approach to the world. Another is curiosity.
Curiosity is to observe the world, question it, and measure it through experimentation to more fully know it. This is the scientific method, and we use it every day to penetrate the mystery that is the world. The British physicist Brian Cox describes this approach as, “Interrogating nature to try and understand it.”
In the Rabbi Nahman parable, if awe is looking at the letter while holding a recognition of the king, then curiosity is studying the letter, the world, to better know the king. If awe is the beginning of wisdom, curiosity is the beginning of knowledge. The paradox is to both stand in awe of the world and to be actively curious about the world. The more curious we are, the more we can stand in awe and feel the great joy of the prince. One of the most curious humans to have ever lived, Albert Einstein, professed a belief in a God who, in his words, “Reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.” A God who, “Reveals itself in the world of experience.”
The lenses of awe and curiosity are useful in viewing the world, but the question remains, how do we use them? This is a question for which I do not have a full answer. But, within the parshat ha’shavuah, there is a lesson in how to live life in a way that we can apply the lenses of awe and curiosity. Like Abraham and Sarah, we can put ourselves into a position to curiously explore and experience awesomely the mystery, by going! Lekh Lekha! Anybody who has been in Israel for more than a day appreciates how ingrained lekh lekha is in the Jewish consciousness. We are a people on the move and it all began with Abram and Sarai. Abram and his family start the parsha in modern day Iraq, travel through Syria, arrive in Israel at Shechem, head toward Bethel, and then down into the Negev. They then went down into Egypt, back up into the Negev, and then back toward Bethel. Abram’s nephew Lot and his family head east toward the Jordan River, Abram stays put for a brief moment, and then travels to Hebron. Abram then raises an army to rescue Lot from a few raiding kings, chasing them north of Damascus before returning again to Israel. This exhausting itinerary is the first three chapters of the Parsha, and it will take another three chapters of action before Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. By going, by doing, by experiencing, the first Jews are able to live a life so fully that here we are talking about it 3,700 years later, and we should only be so lucky to follow their example.
The dominant approach of Abraham and the Bible is awe: A grand awe before the world, a recognition of the ineffable holiness that lies both within and beyond our experienced world. Curiosity is not the dominant biblical approach, and in the ancient world curiosity was more closely identified with the Greeks. But, since we are Reconstructionists and of two civilizations, I think it is important to include the Greek method, curiosity, alongside the biblical method, awe. I believe they are complementary, one leads directly to another and then back to the other.
A quick story of a time where I pursued a curiosity to a point of awe by going and doing: I spent two weeks this past summer leading a group of twelve Jewish teenagers on an adventure through southern Utah. We went to Zion national park, Bryce canyon, and then finally to Arches national park. One night in Arches, we were finishing up dinner as the sun finished setting, and a park ranger pulled me aside to let me know that there was a ranger activity starting in 30 minutes, and the kids might like to go. She said that the program would explain how the sandstone arches, some almost 300 feet in width and 150 feet tall, formed over time. After a 110 degree day of hiking through these arches, I excitedly told the ranger that we would all gladly hike to the presentation. There, we learned how, over 300 million years ago, an ancient ocean evaporated, leaving an unstable salt bed that was eventually covered by a mile of rock. The salt bed dramatically pushed some of the rock upwards, and wind and water erosion chiseled the looser rock away, leaving the magnificent and unstable arches that we experienced. My curiosity in the formation of the arches brought me to a place of awe, in a similar way to the prince studying the letter from the king. And, like the prince, I felt a great joy.
So, I ask you, during what activities, in what places, in what times, do you experience an awe that brings you great joy? What curiosities lead you to that point of awe? Please turn to the people around you and think together about, as we begin our journey through the yearly cycle of Torah, what adventures would you like to pursue this year to bring you to a place of awe and joy?