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Sleepovers and Radical Amazement

10/20/2022 06:34:48 PM


I saw a post somewhere on social media a couple of weeks ago relating to our just-concluded festival of Sukkot. It pointed out that in our tradition, the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are ones in which God says to us, “Get your act together! Do teshuvah!” Then comes Sukkot, the post continued, when God says to us, “Enough of that! Now… Step outside!”


As I pointed out on Tuesday night to our Living a Jewish Life adult education students, after the intense introspection and seriousness of the High Holy Days, Sukkot, like a citrus sorbet, is a wonderful “palate cleanser.” It’s a holiday of the outdoors, a holiday I only learned to appreciate as an adult, when, as I said to the class, I sat in the sukkah I had built for the first time, enjoying breakfast, eating my customary bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, while looking up at the sky through the roof of the sukkah and being taken by surprise at the site of migrating birds flying overhead. It was quite magical.


This year, though, a Sukkot connection struck me that had never hit me before. Right at the end of Sukkot comes Simchat Torah (which we celebrated so joyfully last Sunday night). And at the end of Sukkot, on Simchat Torah, we start the annual Torah reading cycle all over again. So, the Torah portion right after the “outdoorsy” Sukkot harvest festival is always Bereshit, including the epic creation story with which our Torah begins. We get outside for a week of celebration and then start the Torah over with the mystery of existence and the laws of the natural world. Beautiful!


In his book, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, the great Twentieth Century Jewish philosopher and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel, connects our spiritual and religious longings to an experience that he calls “radical amazement.” He asks, “What are the foundations of nature? To the Greeks who take the world for granted, Nature, Order is the answer. To the biblical mind in its radical amazement, nature, order, are not an answer but a problem: Why is there order, being, at all?”


You might say that beholding the natural order in this way is akin to the young child who asks why the sky is blue, and then responds “but why” to every explanation offered by the adult.


Which reminds me of one of my very first bar mitzvah students back on Long Island, a boy named Marc, whose bar mitzvah Torah portion was Bereshit. At a certain point in our weekly meetings I asked him to go home and think about this question: “if the Torah portion Bereshit is the answer to a question, what question is it trying to answer?”


A week later he smiled and told me that he had an answer. He said, “It’s like when you sleep over a friend’s house, and you first open your eyes in the morning, and for a split second you’re not sure where you are or how you got there, and you are sort of confused and surprised. So, he said, that’s what Bereshit is about, the moment when you wonder how you got here.”


Abraham Joshua Heschel would have been very proud of this adolescent.


Take some time this Shabbat, if you can, to slow down enough to consider just how extraordinary it is that you possess a body, and a mind, and an inner life, and consciousness, and that you, yourself exist for a while in this extraordinary world. Taking time to see and feel and remember that can shift your perspective in some remarkable ways. You, as well, may find yourself radically amazed.


Wishing you a beautiful and restful Shabbat,


Rabbi Folberg

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784