A Thought about Epiphanies

An honest moment is harder to come by than one would think.

It’s not like we’re looking for divine revelation or a heavenly voice.  Not even for some cosmically important, life-changing, new idea to pop into our heads.

Just a moment of seeing things for what they are, and seeing ourselves for who we are. Not overly critical, nor with rose-colored glasses. No illusions. No delusions. Just a straight, truthful reflection in the mirror of objectivity.

It sounds simple enough, but we call these moments “epiphanies.”  Some totally mundane moment on a random Wednesday can bring you into a sufficiently thoughtful and sober state of mind to realize that that thing your parents have been telling you for years, or that thing your wife was asking you for, or that thing you’ve been meaning to do for months but kept avoiding — is true!  And real!  And valid!  And makes sense! And wow — why did it take you so long to see it?!?

No new information was presented. No bolts of lightning. No heavenly voice. And yet, these moments are so rare that we, in the 21st century, call them “epiphanies,” a term classically used by Christians and the ancient Greeks to denote a supernatural revelation — and here, you had it while sipping your Starbucks and people-watching on the train.

The amazing thing about the Truth is that it was there all along — right under our noses, yet we couldn’t sense its sweet fragrance.  But when we do, we inhale deeply and open our eyes to see it everywhere around us. In the wake of an epiphany, everything glows with renewed vibrancy. The vibrancy of truth to which our senses had been dulled with a powerful anesthetic. As such, these encounters are nothing short of bumping into Reality itself — no matter how “mundane” the realization was. They are moments of waking up from a dream. The world we lived in prior fades and is shed like the skin of a snake. We look around with new eyes.

To whatever degree you came to understand something true about yourself — something real about life — which is now so obvious, but was previously invisible — this moment is truly supernatural.  If nature is the norm, our norm is to be oblivious.  What is abnormal is to be awake and aware and recognize that which is true about who we are and who we want to be.  These are supernatural epiphanies indeed.

For the atheist, “God” is just a word.  For the agnostic, “God” is an intuition he has trouble proving logically.  As for the religious — he runs the risk of relegating God to the house of prayer and study, but not his home or heart.  No matter how “religious,” every person must reckon with his own inconsistencies, whether between the public sphere and the private sphere, or between what we practice and what we preach.  When our inconsistencies force us to come to terms with who we are and who we ought to be, we viscerally encounter Reality — larger than ourselves and the 2-dimensional ways we’ve convinced ourselves to see things.  Our inescapable sense that these moments are profoundly significant is vindicated when we learn that in Jewish consciousness they are nothing less than encounters with Hashem Himself.  “God” becomes more than a word.  We discover Him as a Reality.*

The decision to face the truth doesn’t make it jump out at us all at once.  Our built-in defenses to facing ourselves truthfully are too good to allow that.  But however honestly we commit to honesty, the epiphanies come more often.  It starts with us.  If we are truthful, the Truth comes to meet us halfway.  If “I am to my Beloved,” then, “my Beloved is to me.”**

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי **

As we approach Rosh Hashana, we have before us a full month, the month of Elul אלול.  It has no holidays, nor any particular laws mandated by the Torah.  It was given to us as a blank canvas.  The Jewish people painted on it two customs.  The Ashkenazim sound the shofar every morning to wake us up from our daze, and the Sepharadim actually wake up earlier than normal to sing songs of desire to return to ourselves and our Creator.

It should be a month of epiphanies.  A month of love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,


*Since “וַה׳ אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת” — “and Hashem God is Reality” (Yermiyahu 10, paraphrased in the last 3 words of the Shma), and

“קָרוֹב ה׳ לְכָל־קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת” — “Hashem is close to all who call to Him — to all who call to Him truthfully”  (Tehillim 145, “Ashrei”).

**Shir Hashirim 6.  This allusion to the month of Elul in this verse is the most famous of many allusions throughout Torah to this coming month.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
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