Our Two Worlds

In today’s world, it is so easy to get caught up in the development and achievement of the many goals we set for ourselves.

From the time we are very young, we are trained to begin thinking about what we want to be when we grow up and how we will get there.

And as we grow up, those objectives multiply as we consider the many goals we set out to achieve: getting ahead in our careers, earning money, getting married, having children — the list goes on. And, as we continue through life, we set new goals and set out to do all the things necessary to achieve those goals. Once we achieve one goal, we are already planning the next, ready to run out to complete it and move on to another one.

And as we spin through the kaleidoscope of movement it takes to reach one goal after another, it is much harder to stop ourselves en route and ask: Where am I in all of this, and what does God want for — and of — me?

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, the Torah records, “And God appeared to him [Abraham] in the oaks of Mamre, sitting in the opening of the tent.”

Why is it that the Torah tells us that Abraham is sitting in the opening of the tent? After all, if Abraham wanted to find God, would we not expect that he would be out doing all the things necessary to make that meeting happen? If his goal were to meet God, wouldn’t he, like we, be outside finding all the ways to achieve that goal? Yet, despite the midrashic suggestion that it was only the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, we are also not told that he is inside the tent, retreating from the outside world, waiting for God to appear. It is in neither abandoning the home nor abandoning the outside world that Abraham ultimately finds God.

Instead, we are told that he is sitting “in the opening of the tent” on the threshold between the home — his private space, his inner world of devotion, solitude and privacy — and the outer world, the world of achievement and taking control of one’s own goals. It is in that very pause between his two worlds that Abraham invites in God’s appearance. It is only after his momentary pause that Abraham is ready to embrace his next task with renewed vigor, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. The narrative continues to describe how he runs out of the tent to welcome three men to his home, invites them in and offers them hospitality, eager to do what he can to please them and to be an exemplary host.

It is in this very idea that the Torah comes to teach us an important lesson. Instead of constantly running through the world, doing all the things necessary to show that we are in control, perhaps we, like Abraham, sometimes need to slow down before running to embrace our next task.

Perhaps we, too, must sit on the threshold between our own world of inner reflection and devotion and the outer world of goal orientation, directed objectives and tasks to be accomplished. In so doing, we create our own space — for our truest selves to emerge and for inviting God’s appearance into our lives. And, in creating that moment, we, too, find renewed vigor, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose for the tasks that lie ahead.

May we all be inspired by Abraham to find our own threshold, our “opening of the tent” between our inner and outer world, where we can search for — and hopefully find — God’s presence in our lives.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz is assistant dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 2, 2001.

Place of Balance

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana ("Head of the Year" in Hebrew), is an occasion for celebration and feasting but also for introspection and reflection. Marking the "birthday of the world" — the creation of the universe some six millennia ago, according to the traditional reckoning — it falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is commonly celebrated for two days.

Because Judaism uses a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar year, the holiday can fall anywhere from mid-September to mid-October, and people often speak of Rosh Hashana coming early (as it does this year) or late — but, as the joke goes, never quite on time.

"On time," however, might be at the solar equinox, for Rosh Hashana is concerned with balance, with weighing and with judgment — like the scales of Libra, the astrological sign associated with this time of year. As daylight and darkness even out and summer slowly fades, it seems as if a larger drama framing human lives is being acted out above. It’s to this drama, its Creator and the individual in relationship to it, rather than to events in Jewish history, that Rosh Hashana directs itself. The holiday does not neglect festive meals, holiday clothes and family get-togethers, but its themes are existential, focusing on rigorous self-examination, free will and the possibility of personal change.

Wearing this hat, under the name Yom ha’Din, the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashana asks that individuals assess themselves to see where they have fallen short in their relationship to their inner selves, to their loved ones, to their community and to God. Because the holiday urges return to the inner self, it has a feeling of homecoming embedded in it. This promise of homecoming may explain why even many Jews who feel disconnected from Judaism the rest of the year bring themselves back to synagogue on these High Holidays.

Rosh Hashana is also called Yom Teruah, the day of sounding the shofar, or ram’s horn, whose piercing blast is the primary symbol of the holiday. The practice of blowing the shofar is mandated by biblical law, and though the Bible offers no justification, the shofar sounds can be understood as a way of waking the inner person to self-examination, change and recommitment to the moral and ethical requirements of Jewish life.

The holiday’s tropism toward the philosophical and internal is corrected, so to speak, by an array of appealing customs. Among the best-known is eating apple slices dipped in honey with a wish for a sweet year. Many people also follow a custom of eating symbolic foods at the start of Rosh Hashana meals, with a spoken word play that explains their symbolism (see page 36). For example — to carry the verbal play into English, as many people do — beets may be served to express the hope that our opponents will not "beat" us. The head of a fish (or even a sheep) suggests, "May we be the head and not the tail."

The braided breads typical on Jewish festivals are exchanged for round loaves, to allude to the cycles of time. Some bakers decorate them with such motifs as a ladder (to recall the ladder that the biblical Jacob saw connecting heaven to earth). At Tashlich, from the Hebrew word meaning "to send," individuals or congregations go to a river or pond to symbolically empty their pockets, as if to cast the mistakes of the past year into the flowing water.

The process of personal realignment is begun on Rosh Hashana, but the struggle with the self isn’t likely to be completed in a day or two of feasting or even praying. Rosh Hashana initiates the period of the Days of Awe, an extended opportunity for making amends to others and for clarifying one’s own heart that culminates 10 days later in the austere and yet joyful fast of Yom Kippur.