November 19, 2019

This Year, Will We Answer the Call?

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Next week, we begin again to read the Torah from Page One. In the opening chapters, we will be confronted, as we are every year, with God’s first question to humankind. Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, realize they are naked, and hide from God. God calls out: “Ayeka?” (Where are you?)

Do we really think that God didn’t know Adam and Eve’s physical location? Or rather, was God asking a pointed question that is asked of each of us, every day: When you are called — by the Divine, by your soul, by something deep within you — where are you? Are you showing up to answer that call?

In 2017, I was working as an entertainment lawyer. Our firm was evaluating a new band to determine whether to represent it. We went to watch the band perform, and one of their lyrics pierced me: “You’ve only got one life to live. Why are you so afraid to fly?” Suddenly, I felt tears streaming down my face.

For years, I had felt a calling to become a cantor — a member of the Jewish clergy who uses the power of music to build community and connection. Yet, I had followed the path of a respectable but totally different profession. Here I was, confronted by the ultimate question, the same one asked since the inception of humankind: In this short life, are you showing up to answer your call?

When God asks, “Where are you?” Adam replies, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Perhaps part of having the knowledge of good and evil means that we understand the risks of answering the true callings of our souls. We fear we will be ridiculed or left alone. We fear disappointing others or losing the approval of our family or community. Sometimes, in an attempt to protect ourselves from the potential pain of vulnerability and nakedness, we hide behind the safety of inertia.

When I first expressed my dream of becoming a cantor, I faced skepticism from some traditional voices in the wider Persian Jewish community.

When I first expressed my dream of becoming a cantor, I faced skepticism from some traditional voices in the wider Persian Jewish community. I was told that it was not appropriate for a woman to pursue a role traditionally assumed by men; that it was “cute” (translation: they didn’t understand the job); and that I would never find a husband. These voices entered my psyche and latched onto my already existing doubts and insecurities, those that exist within most of us when it comes to taking a risk: Can I actually do it? Will I even succeed? Will I be happy? Will I be alone?

For years, I quieted the call. I went to law school and worked as a lawyer, at a wonderful firm with wonderful people. I would not trade those experiences for the world, because they gave me innumerable gifts and shaped who I am. But we reach a point, if we are really listening, when the call becomes crystal clear. Sometimes it is expressed through a moment, a person or a dream when we sleep. I believe the key is to not be afraid to listen.

For me, the call became crystal clear when I heard those pivotal song lyrics, and shortly thereafter, when my now-fiance looked me in the eye and asked me how much longer I wanted to live an inauthentic life. After some time spent facing my vulnerabilities — an admittedly scary time — I left the practice of law, taking a full-time position as a cantorial soloist and enrolling in cantorial school. Of course, this was not the first nor the last time I would be asked by life to turn inward and respond to a call.

So often, we follow a path that we think is expected of us but that does not ring true to our souls. When we strip away the fears and doubts that block us, we can open the door to our true paths, contributing our unique and much-needed gifts to the world.

This year, in this new beginning, what will it take for us to stand in our vulnerability? To face our fears about who we really are, and what we are being called to do? When we hear, “Ayeka?” (Where are you?), will we answer the call?


Jackie Rafii is a cantorial soloist at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills.