September 25, 2018

Praying to God’s Smaller Face: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

In this week’s Torah portion, it is written: I broke the pegs of your yoke and led you upright. (Leviticus 26:13).

On this verse, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch (one of the early leaders of Chasidism) commented: “An animal walks with its face to the earth, for earthiness and materiality is all that it knows. Man walks upright, for man was born to gaze upon and aspire to the heavens.”

In the ancient threefold priestly blessing, there are two mentions of God’s face. When I think of the first mention, “May God’s Face shine upon you and be gracious to you,” I think of that face shining like a sun, radiant and coaxing you to grow, drying your tears and painting your world gold. It is incomprehensibly grand, and yet, even from that royal height, that face is looking at you! With favor!

In the second mention, “May God’s Face lift up to you, and grant you peace,” I imagine that face small, such that you have to look down, searching the earth, amid the tiny things, the building blocks of our biosphere, and from that place of the itty-bitty, that place of single-celled life and tiny blinks of hope, from there the face lifts up to you, because you are grand and a wonder to behold!

In most of our prayers and theology, we focus on the first face, the face of the heavens. When I wrote this prayer, “Prayer for a Cure for Cancer,” I wrote it to the smaller face.I wrote it facing the earth, addressing earthiness and physicality, calling upon the God of small things, for the same God who took us out of Egypt amid signs and wonders also mended our sandals all along that long journey.


Prayer for a Cure for Cancer

We are sometimes mistaken
when we fear that which is big.
Godzilla, King Kong
Asteroid, Armageddon
At least we can see it when it comes.
We are sometimes mistaken
when we fear that which is big.
Change, birth,
death, love.
At least we can throw our arms wide around it.

God of big things,
God of great deeds,
God of the drama of the Exodus,
the parting of the seas,
the fire on the mountain,
the creation out of nothing,
we are wonderstruck by You,
dazzled by big things.

But are You not also the God of the small,
God of the turning leaf,
God of the grain of sand,
God of the passing shadow,
God of the rotting fruit?

I address You now
as God of the small,
because sometimes we are mistaken
when we fear that which is big,
when that which is most frightening of all
is small,
the size of a melanomic cell,
the size of a metastatic pinpoint,
the size of a golf ball,
the size of a grapefruit
growing where there is no tree.

That immutable danger
that makes us victims of our own
soft tissue, lymphnodes, and blood,
that devastating fear
that stalks us out of passing shadows,
out of the mist of pesticide,
tar, benzene, p.c.b. toxicities,
out of the glow of gamma-rays, x-rays, ultraviolet rays, aluminum foil,
out of the silicone, the tobacco, the skin of an apple,
the high saturated fats, the low fiber,
the vegetable hair dyes,
out of nothing,
out of nothing.
You are good at that God,
Creation out of nothing.
I pray to You now, God of small things,
God of miracles-barely-perceived
by the naked, mortal eye,
I pray to You now, God of small things,
for a spontaneous global
For erasure of that word that lurks darkly
behind our words.
When Moses’ sister was struck
Moses spoke five small words to You.
El na rafa na la.
God please heal her please.
You answered, and You healed her.

Whether you are looking down or looking up, whether your world has narrowed with constraints of health and age, or your world has widened with possibility, may you feel the warmth of God’s smile upon you, and may the pegs of your yoke be broken that you may walk upright, with dignity, and gaze upon and aspire to the heavens.