In these anxious days, American Jews walk around feeling our hearts broken and bruised. We feel vulnerable, sad, confused: our heads bent over our phones, doom-scrolling. Some of us have trouble sleeping, some of us wake up from nightmares and can’t find solace…then, at other moments, we find ourselves walking in the crisp fall air, under a perfect blue sky, or watching our grandkid’s soccer game, or singing together, or biting into a delicious chocolate chip cookie and thinking: is it okay to enjoy this when there is so much suffering? The poet Jane Kenyon wrote that “There is just no accounting for happiness, the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet…” So we must enlarge ourselves in these moments, and trust that we are sturdy enough to contain it all: the sadness, the fear, and the joy.
Each of us must wrestle with how to relate to God in times of crisis and tragedy: Where was God in the massacre of Simchat Torah? Where was God when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue 5 years ago and murdered 11 of our shomrim, our elders as they gathered for Shabbat services? Where is God in the incomprehensible events of the last few weeks, as we watch the brutal loss of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians unfold? We cannot REALLY answer these questions, since God is the ultimate mystery – and yet, neither can we ignore the questions.
Other faiths bow before God when they pray, and we Jews bow too – but our central personal communication channel with God is the Amidah, the “standing prayer.” The quality of anavah, or humility, is a Jewish middah (sometimes translated as soul trait), a quality we strive to cultivate in ourselves. Anavah does NOT mean making ourselves small. Rather, anavah means right-sizing ourselves, making sure that we take up an appropriate amount of of space. So, when we address God we stand erect, as if to say: “Here I am, God..I stand before you as my full self, with all my shimmer, as well as my dents and flaws.” In the first blessing of the Amidah we invoke our ancestors, a gesture that also calls on us to be humble, to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet, we know these giants, our ancestors, were really just human beings like us. It’s comforting to think that everything that happens to us has probably happened before; that our ancestors shouldered the same heartbreaks we feel, shared the same joys we feel.
The first blessing of our Amidah, is sealed, or closed with the following words: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם Blessed are you, God, shield of Abraham. Most of the words in our siddur relate back to the Bible and this is no exception. In fact, the phrase “Magan Avraham” appears only once in Tanakh: in this week’s parsha. These words come from the first encounter in which Abram talks to God; when we chant them in the amidah we invoke the memory of the first real conversation between a Jew and God.
At the opening of Genesis Chapter 15, Abram has just defeated a group of nations in a war that he got drawn into when his nephew Lot was taken as a hostage (in case we needed reminding that everything that happens to us has probably happened to our ancestors). God comes to Abram in a vision and says: אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ/Don’t be afraid. I will be a shield for you. God’s opening line implies that Abram IS afraid. He has many doubts and fears. Why is Abram afraid? Generally, commentators note that Abram is likely afraid of two things: 1. That the defeated kings will seek revenge, 2. That Abram will die without bearing a child, and God’s promise will remain unfulfilled.
We read the same words every year, but each year they are different because we are different, because the world is different. Why is Abram afraid? This year as I read Abram and God’s first dialogue I thought anew about the context of this divine-human conversation, about how Abram has just finished fighting a war that he did not ask for, has just rescued his nephew who was kidnapped and held hostage. Maybe Abram is traumatized – which is to say that he IS afraid of feared future events, and ALSO afraid of the terrifying memories in his head that he must relive on a tape that runs through his mind on repeat.
My teacher, Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman taught that, remarkably, God does not say: “Abram you have nothing to fear.” God does not say, “I will make all that you are afraid of disappears,” or even: “I will make sure nothing will hurt you. ” Rather, God says, אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ/Don’t be afraid. I will be a shield for you. God AGREES with Abram that there is danger. God says, in essence: I cannot take danger away (or memories, for that matter) – but I can protect you. How does a shield work? You have to pick it up and hold it. You need to have some training; you must be strong and agile, and know how to use the shield to protect yourself. Maybe this points to how prayer works, how the entire project of Judaism works: 1. We have to know something about it, 2. We have to raise it up and hold it close to us, 3. We have to practice with it, in order to be able to use it in times of danger and fear.
Rabbi Elie Kanfer says that perhaps this shield is not a cold piece of metal. Rather, this shield is warm embrace – a place where Abram (and we) can feels safe to express out doubts and questions and worries. That is what the Amidah, what prayer, is for. When we pray the Amidah, our doubts and fears are welcome.
Many of us love to sing the words of Reb Nachman: כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוֹ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לֹא לְפַחֵד כְּלַל “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear at all.” I love this song, but I take issue with the second line. Being brave is not getting rid of fear; it is about taking your fear with you and walking where you want or need to go. Often when we read this parsha, we marvel the opening line… God’s voice saying Lech Lecha/Get going! However, the real miracle is in verse 4 of chapter 12: וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם Abram went! He walked forward, with his fears, with his doubts.
Standing before God and praying from our hearts may not stop the evil in the world or the demons in our minds, but perhaps, if we practice holding this shield close to us we will feel ourselves standing before God with appropriate humility, in all our shimmer and all our flaws, as our ancestors before us stood. Then when we pray, we will know in that moment that THIS is a place where we can be real, where we can bring our doubts and fears, as well as our joy.