Being Present with the Unknown: Shabbat D’var Vayikra

Rabbi Matt Vayikra

 Shabbat Shalom, When I was in undergrad, I had a roommate who was from Edmonton. She, among other things, besides being an artist, was also an improv actor. She told me about an event that happened at the main improv theatre in Edmonton every year. It was a 24 hour straight improvised performance with a whole team of improv actors.

I had not done improv acting myself, so I asked her about it, “How do you do that even for a minute? How do you create an entire performance that has a narrative arc, with funny moments and serious moments? How do you create all of that on the spot?”

What she told me was that it’s all about trust.

To view on line…

It’s all about listening to what’s going on inside of you and what’s going on around you. The art of this type of improv acting is just letting what’s inside of you come out into the performance. It’s about a deep trust in the process, in the flow of what arises in those spaces. This kind of flow is not unique to improv acting. We see it in a musician that’s doing a guitar solo. Some guitarists talk about being in the zone, and it just sort of flows. We see it in painters and people who want to draw. We see it in poets. It’s this ability to be present with what’s arising before us, what’s a rising inside of us, and to say “yes” in a way that makes sense. We do this in order to let whatever needs to unfold, unfold. It comes down to trust.

The word emunah in Hebrew is often translated as faith or belief. People could ask, “Emunah: do you have faith, do you believe?” That, too many modern ears, sounds like: “Do I believe in God? Do I believe that God exists?” — That kind of thing.      But, if we look at the overall meaning of the word emunah in Jewish history, there are occasions when it means, “Do you believe in God’s existence?” But usually it means, “Do you believe in God?” as in, “Do you trust in God?” in the same way that we might say to someone, “I believe in you!” We don’t mean, “I believe that you exist!” We mean, “I have faith that you can do what you’re trying to do. I trust in you.”

So the word emunah in Hebrew, certainly in its traditional meaning, has more to do with, not “believing in God’s existence” per se, but actually believing that God is faithful. We say the modeh ani prayer in the morning. It’s a prayer that’s said upon further arising. One of the lines in there, after we say, “I Thank you God for returning my soul,” we say, “rabah emunatekha.” We’re saying to God, “Great is your faith, God!” One of the interpretations is that every morning God is saying to us, “I believe in you.” God is having trust in us. So that’s God’s emunah for us.

This idea of emunah is very relevant right now. I’m talking to people in our community who are describing different experiences of what they’re going through right now. Some people are talking about difficult experiences, whether it’s worries or just a sense of some isolation or some loneliness. As much as I am able, as much as we’re able, we’re being there for one another right now. We’re trying to help each other through whatever difficulties are arising. And there are other people I’m talking to who, well, they’re not shouting from the rooftops, but they’re experiencing a happiness, or joy, or gratitude in this moment. They are feeling thankful for the lack of cars driving right now, or they’re feeling like it’s nice to have some personal space. So when I’m hearing these different descriptions of what people are facing I’m thinking of this word emunah: this idea of trust.

The way it’s framed traditionally is a trust in God, the unfolding process is what God is leading us towards. But we don’t have to necessarily frame it in those terms. If, for example, you don’t believe in God or if you are not sure about God’s existence, emunah can be just about a way that we relate to the world, a way that we relate to what we experience. It’s the difference between running from something we’re facing and actually having a sense that whatever is going on for us personally or in the world right now has meaning behind it. There’s purpose there. Having emunah in those moments is about being present with what’s going on.

In one sense, emunah is this trust in the outer. It’s a trust that, amidst all that’s happening in our country, in our city, with our families, and beyond, emunah in this sense is an acknowledgement, or you can even say a belief, in the kind of meaning of what’s going on. There is something happening here and we can have faith in the process. We might not know how it’s going to end but we’re able to be with it in a way that will allow it to unfold, like an improv story.

So that would be emunah in the outer world, but there’s another kind of emunah. It’s an emunah for the inner. For some of us it might feel very natural to say, “Oh, there’s definitely something important going on here in the world. I’m just going to trust in the process and not get too overwhelmed.” But for some of us there might be reactions going on inside. Emunah of the internal world is about trusting what’s going on for us inside, in our experiences. It doesn’t have to be just trusting negative stuff and letting that play out. It’s about trusting whatever’s there.

When I’m hearing from people that there is a fear that’s arising or, on the other hand, if I hear from people that there is some gratitude or there’s joy, (and I think for most of us there’s probably a combination of these things), emunah in this internal sense means trusting what’s going on inside of us. There’s actually a reason it exists. Being present with it and allowing it to be there and to unfold moment by moment, just as we would let our external world unfold, or those musical notes that come to us in creative moments, or those words, we can trust in that process.

Probably for most of us it’s easier to be present with positive happy feelings. But in moments of difficulty, part of this practice is not saying, “I should be feeling a certain way,” but rather just being with that. And there are many ways of being with those feelings: whether through just feeling it inside and just allowing it to express itself how it needs to express itself, or being with the feeling in a way that we’re being creative and allowing it to be fueling a creative process. We can reach out to each other; we can reach out to God. This offer is here and it will continually be here whenever our community is in need. We can reach out to each other in the community. You can reach out to me. You can reach out to anyone who’s available in our community, in the leadership or in any of our great volunteers. There are opportunities to have other people help us be present with what we’re going through, and help us face what we might not be able to face alone. In this process, there are a lot of things that can arise.

I want to share something that relates to this week’s parshah that I know some of us are feeling. I can talk on a personal level. When I was being present with some of these emotions I was feeling this last week especially, this is one of the messages that came through. It really relates to this week’s parshah, the very first word. This is the first parshah in The Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. Vayikra is mainly about the sacrifices, the offerings that were given in the mishkan once it’s built. The previous parshahs were about building the mishkan. Now it’s built and we’re starting to get descriptions, Moses is hearing from God the descriptions on how to actually conduct the offerings, the korbanot. Korban is a word that we can translate as “sacrifice,” but also as “offering.” It is related to the word karov which means to “draw close.” It’s this way that we make offerings, so that we can draw close to God. In a sense, these offerings, these services, the religious and holy acts, draw us very near to each other and very near to ourselves as well.

The very first word in this parshah, which is the first word of The Book of Leviticus, is Vayikra. In the Torah, there’s a unique thing that happens. Well, not unique as in it never happens elsewhere, but it’s very rare I should say. The word vayikra has the last letter, the aleph is very small. The other letters are regular size and last letter, the aleph, is very small. There’s a mystical interpretation of this aleph. Aleph is the first letter of the alphabet. It is Oneness. It’s this abundant bounty. It’s very much associated with Divinity, with the One, with Ein Sof [The Infinite].

And, there’s this idea that in order for that expansive One to allow this world to exist, that One has to be contracted. That aleph energy is abounding love, bounty, and Divinity; if it did not limit itself it would almost be overwhelming. In many ways, this aleph that is contracted allows this world to exist. That means that sometimes in regular life the beauty of the world, the love, the bounty, the abundance, is actually hidden. We can’t always tune into what kind of amazingness exists in everyday life. One of the gifts, that I know some of us have been experiencing at this time, is that we are able to tune into things that normally, we wouldn’t notice but are actually extremely precious, valuable, and beautiful. Everyday, just the ability to have loved ones, and the ability to connect, life itself, and existence, things that we all generally speaking don’t think about so much everyday (are more readily seen as beautiful).

I’m sure some of us do have this really amazing heart full of gratitude at so many moments. There are a lot of things that just seem like they’re normal and everyday, but at times like this they tend to glow a little bit more brightly, or a lot more brightly. That contracted aleph (right now), there are fewer veils between us and that glow. My blessing for everyone is that we are able to get in touch with that beauty. And, also, when things are not feeling beautiful, when things are not feeling easy, that we have the ability to be present with that, to have that trust in the process, that trust in existence, that trust in God, that trust in what’s unfolding right now.

I really believe that just like that 24-hour improv, which I’m sure was all sorts of exhausting and taxing, that had many different moments of tiredness and being fed up, and there also beauty, that ultimately came to this conclusion in a narrative arc, I really believe that our ability to be trusting and present with what’s arising will help us get through and to be really open and honest and okay with whatever it is that we’re experiencing right now.

So please, if there’s anything that’s going on for you that you need to reach out, please reach out to someone, reach out to me, or reach out to the community. We’re here. If you’re feeling good, I wish for you that you continue to feel good. And may we be blessed with what we all need most right now, which is for each of us a little bit different, but my sense of emunah is that we all have a sense of really what we need most. I bless each of you to get in touch with that and really find a way to find balance and harmony as we continue this journey together.

Rabbi Matt

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An inclusive, warm, and progressive Conservative synagogue in Victoria, B.C.

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