This summer, when Philadelphia welcomed the Dear Evan Hansen tour, I was struck by the enduring human question the musical poses: How can we feel understood? The show, about a lonely teen-aged boy with social anxiety who feels unnoticed puts it this way: “Have you ever felt like you could disappear? There’s a place where we don’t have to feel unknown,” Evan Hansen sings.
My sense is that Evan speaks not only for those who struggle with mental health, but for everyone. The plague of loneliness, the potential for invisibility, I am convinced: these bind us. The distance between us, amplified in the thick of the pandemic isolation has not magically lifted and candidly, was already with us all along. Struck by the ways many of us in the congregation and in the world are feeling separate, I feel compelled to explore what it is that widens or narrows the distance… And on this Kol Nidre, this night of promises, to rededicate ourselves to this place where we yearn for our souls to be known.
Our Torah tells the story of Hagar, a slave of low status and little agency. A surrogate for Abraham and Sarah, once pregnant Hagar is afflicted by them and flees to the wilderness. There, Hagar cries out to God, by the name: “God Who Sees / El Roi.” And that spot where Hagar stands is called: Beer Lachai Roi / A place of being seen. (Of course, it is not about technical sight but about perceiving another’s truth). Bound up in her name for God, El Roi, is both her desperate longing to be seen by God, and, her faith in God. This woman who is potentially overlooked, Hagar, discovers a God who sees, who does not overlook. When Hagar’s heart is cracked open, she understands not only who God is, but who we ought to be. For bound up in our lives is our longing to be seen, and our faith that it is possible…possible to share something of our essence…possible to realize our presence matters. It is Hagar, this marginalized non-Israelite woman, who teaches us, to seek out a space where we can be known.
Here, in our congregation, we, emulating God, witness each other’s truths. Here, knowing nothing, no one, ever stays the same, we nurture and challenge each other’s growth, as we stretch into new phases of our journeys—our journeys of spirituality, Torah learning, justice work, of participation in congregation life, of profound connections.
To know each other is godly, holy. To witness each other makes this our Beer Lachai Roi / a place of being seen.
This year, our RS Widows Connection Group published a book, called: Struggling Well…Thanks for Asking: Widows Sharing Their Stories to Help Comfort & Embrace Your Journey. I learn so much from the ways they witness each other as they stretch into new experiences. One author writes about feeling like a stranger in settings where she previously felt at home: “Newly bereaved, dining out with friends, I endured a mortifying discussion, by a trio of husbands, who debated how to split 4 credit cards 7 ways. I learned to bring cash.” Another author writes of isolation and hope: “I was lost. [Although] my children are wonderful and… my friends always include me, I felt like overnight, I went from a strong, competent woman to a shell of a person. I joined a widows group at the synagogue. How wonderful to be surrounded by women who understood how I felt without explanation…to find a group of compassionate, strong, understanding women who became my friends. These women gave me the strength to grieve, to take one day at a time, to undergo major surgery alone, to face my life.” Widowhood often invisible, in this bond, they are profoundly seen.
Hagar, from our Torah, teaches us to look out for the potentially overlooked. There can be a pressure in our society, to reveal only what fits into, a neat box of accepted norms. Fit well enough, and you are celebrated. Yet so many of us carry truths, that do not fit. Indeed I think the box contains only a few people. But, when left out of it, how easy it is to waste our energy ensuring, no one finds out we do not fit. Keeping those real parts of us secret, builds a wall, a closet, a barrier of fear that separates us one from another.
In our congregational striving to be that place where you don’t have to be unknown, where we do not overlook…We seek to explicitly see people, who might feel separated from community. That’s why our lobby welcome banner does not just say: all are welcome. Thanks to our DEI –our Diversity/Equity/Inclusion group, called EID, in Hebrew meaning witness, the banner reads:
Whether you are…
Black, brown, white, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, or multi-racial,
Queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or straight,
Three days old, 30 years old, 103 years old,
Single, married, with or without kids, divorced, widowed, or partnered,Living in Philadelphia, the suburbs, or elsewhere,
Struggling with addiction,
Disabled, able-bodied, or a person of differing abilities,
Neurodiverse or neurotypical,
New to Judaism or a lifelong member,
Seeking your path… You belong here at Rodeph Shalom,
Where equity, inclusion, and diversity are congregational values.
This collection, developing as we continue to learn, names the very identities and experiences of those who potentially feel left out, because of the stigma they already face in our society, or the challenge their circumstance already brings, that the distance of stigma, can just make all the more challenging. Anyone’s marginalized identity, can be treated as unseen.
I’ve experienced myself, and listened to many of you, about the distance fueled by stigma, the barriers to witness, we experience around: mental illness, gender expansiveness, infertility, body size, job loss, abortion, divorce. We draw closer to each other, when we witness one another’s truth. This wisdom lies right at the core of our tradition—It’s the very Torah.
The story is told of a preschool class – picture our Buerger Early Learning Center– that is on a tour of the sanctuary but runs out of time before they can learn about the bimah. On their way back to class, their teacher asks the preschoolers: When they return for part 2 of the sanctuary tour, what do they think they will see, when the doors of the ark open? A lively discussion among the children ensues. One student guesses: a big closet of candy. Another student – perhaps a budding cynic — wonders if the ark will be empty. Perhaps coming closest to the answer, the 3rd student guesses that when the rabbi opens the ark, there will be a big mirror. Yes! In Torah we see ourselves, and we see each other. At the center of our community, is the source that helps us all be known.
Jews who have become B’nai Mitzvah, will refer to the Torah portion they chanted as “my Torah portion.” Indeed, tradition teaches: we each have a letter of the Torah that is our own. One part of Torah precisely reflects you–in Sarah’s laughter, your laughter; in Rachel’s heartbreak, your heartbreak; in Moses’s humility, your humility; in Miriam’s wounds, your wounds; in Isaiah’s justice, your justice; your courage, your perseverance, your memories, your ancestors, your aspirations. Every letter of the Torah is indispensable; every soul of infinite value. As one missing letter from Torah, renders a scroll unfit, one missing soul, makes us incomplete as a community. We need each other for this story, this community, to be whole.
Earlier tonight the doors of the ark opened, and we lingered on the scrolls. Just after our High Holy Days, on Simchat Torah when we complete the reading of Torah and then start from Genesis once again, we will dance with the Sifrei Torah and unscroll them to see the text in its entirety, the mirror in its fullness… Cantor Hyman, ensuring we hold it up wearing special gloves, to protect the precious parchment, of these scrolls we inherit from past generations…Rabbi Freedman walking beside the scroll into a circle, and at each portion, teaching us what happens at that point in the scroll–at least a summary, in his 5-minute whole-Torah review–inspiring us to become more intimately aware of the stories of our scrolls, and the stories in our scrolls, each other’s letters and each other’s stories…for every one of your letters, your stories, is needed, cherished in our community.
On this holy day, it fills my soul to be present, with the fullness of our congregation. Still yet, our Torah is not complete for we are not complete. For decades population studies have revealed a great number of Jews and seekers who are curious or even passionate about Jewish life, yet absent from the Jewish community. Tomorrow morning we will read from Torah: “You stand here this day, Atem Nitzavim, all of you, in the presence of the Eternal your God, to enter into the covenant…and not with you alone do I make this covenant, but with each of you who stands here among us this day, and with each one who is not here among us this day.” Although some Jewish institutions lament the outward drift of affiliation the leaders of our Reform Movement suggest instead that we see our demographic reality for what it has the potential to be: a time of transition during which the next phase of sacred Jewish congregational living, unfolds. On the cusp of what is next for the Jewish community, it is time for our congregation to broaden our gaze, that we may more deeply understand those outside our walls… to reach out— to convene Philadelphia-wide conversations, about our lives and what matters to us most, that others may sense the community is a Beer Lachai Roi/a place where we are seen…Not so that we can welcome them into what we have created, but so that we can listen to their truths, learn new ways people can be in relationship with the Jewish community, that they can help shape a Jewish future for us all.
If Rodeph Shalom is the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia, we take on that mantle not as an award but as a responsibility–a responsibility to our congregation and also a responsibility to nothing less than the future of the Jewish People.
For on Yom Kippur, in the presence of the Eternal our God we enter into the covenant. And God makes this covenant not with us alone, but with each of us here today and each one who is not here today. We long to ensure the covenant embraces us all. When Hagar’s heart is cracked open, she understands not only who God is, but who we ought to be. It is this marginalized woman, who teaches the Jewish People the profound truth, about being known to one another. On this Kol Nidre, this night of promises, may we renew our dedication in our return to this place where we yearn for our souls to be known.
May we cherish this sacred community, this Beer Lachai Roi / A place of being seen.