Ayeka: Where Are You?

This is the sermon that I delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning 5782 (2021).

Years ago, before GPS or cell phones or Siri, we had to use roadmaps to figure out where we were and where we were going.  (Remember those days?)

Some of my earliest memories involve visiting the AAA office with my parents to get a map or a Triptick for an upcoming road trip. I loved watching them highlight the proper route on each page. And I loved sitting in the car, staring at the map and watching the scenery tick by. On those trips I was always trying to answer one question: Where are we? How far have we come? Where are we going next? What’s the best route to get where we’re going?

It’s a pretty good metaphor for life, right? Sometimes in our lives we feel compelled to ask ourselves that question: Where are we? How far have we come? Where are we going next? What’s the best route to get where we’re going?

There is a roadmap inside each of us – that helps us to live our most authentic life. That helps us to figure out what we really believe and to align those beliefs to our actions.  That’s the work that Judaism calls Cheshbon HaNefesh – taking an accounting of the soul.

In theory we could be doing that work all the time – always evaluating our decisions, always thoughtfully plotting our next steps. But in practice, life gets in the way. It’s easy to go along on autopilot (to use a second driving metaphor), and to forget to ask ourselves the big questions.

That’s why once a year we have the High Holy Days.

During these 10 days, we are called upon to do Cheshbon HaNefesh – to take out our road map, and hold it up, and ask ourselves big questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going. On these 10 days, we have the opportunity upon ask ourselves what might be the most important question of all: Ayeka – Where are you?

The opening chapters of the Torah – the story of Adam and Eve – tell us that this was the first question ever asked of human beings.

I think most of you know the story in its broad strokes: God creates and Adam and Eve and places them in the Garden of Eden. God tells them that they are allowed to eat from any tree in the entire garden – except one: ‏ עֵ֕ץ הַדַּ֖עַת ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע- the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So what do they do? They eat from that tree, of course.

But it’s what happens next that might be the most interesting: After Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree, the Torah says:

They heard the sound of the Eternal God moving around (stomping around) in the garden at the breezy time of day; and they hid among the trees. The Eternal God called out to the man and said to him, “Ayeka – Where are you?” And Adam replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

Genesis 3:8-10

Then God punishes them – banishes them from the Garden of Eden forever.

We usually think of this as a story about sin and shame. Adam and Eve screw up; God comes tromping through the garden and shouts out “Where are you?“ And the humans cower in shame and hide like bad children.

I think part of the reason we read the story that way is because that’s a very familiar feeling – that feeling of being in trouble, of being exposed. How many of us also have things about ourselves that we are ashamed of, things that we think we need to hide – because they make us bad, or defective, or unlovable.

The psychologist Gay Hendricks writes that deep down, “many of us believe we are flawed, not destined for greatness, or simply not good enough to deserve the dreams we want to achieve.”[1]

We can relate to Adam and Eve, because we also walk through the world with a fear that we might never be enough. And the Biblical story has been reinforcing that idea for a very long time – as have the High Holy Days, telling us we need to beat our chests and fix ourselves.

But what if that’s not what the story is about? What if there is another way of reading this ancient story? And what if this new reading has the power to transform how we feel about ourselves, our shortcomings, and our place in the world.

Let’s rewind the story and look at it again.

Adam and Eve eat the fruit. They know they weren’t supposed to do that – they know it was against the rules, so they hide. Then God comes through the garden demanding to know “Ayeka – Where are you?” so that God can punish them.

But there’s a problem there. This is God. God knows where they are. God’s can’t be looking for them to punish them – that wouldn’t make sense. So there must be some other reason God is asking where they are.

And here we can turn to the commentators:

The Malbim (19th century Ukrainian commentator) teaches that “Ayeka – Where are you?” is a spiritual question: Where are you spiritually? Where are you in terms of your actions and your values? In other words, “Adam and Eve, why did you do that? Let’s talk about it.”[2]

And Rashi,  the 11th century French commentator who is often considered the great explainer of Torah, agrees completely: ״God knew where Adam was. Rather, God asked this question in order to enter into conversation.״ [3]

So when we read it this way, it’s a completely different story. We no longer have an angry, accusatory God bellowing at us while we cower in shame. Instead, God comes to us in the wake of a questionable action with an invitation to enter into conversation:

Ayeka – Where are you? What is your current mental and spiritual state? What are the reasons for the choices you make? How do your actions align with who you are what you believe?

That’s our internal roadmap. It’s made up of our values – the ideas and beliefs that we hold most dear. And like God in the story, sometimes life calls to us with an invitation to think deeply, to make sure our actions and our values are aligned.

Have you ever had a moment when you felt out of alignment?

  • Have you ever taken a hard look at something you had done or been doing, and said “That’s not really me anymore” or “I’m not really proud of that?”
  • Have you ever looked up from your desk at work and realized that what you were doing with your life wasn’t fulfilling you?
  • Have you ever stepped back from a relationship or friendship and known that you weren’t at your best in it?

These are all different kinds of misalignment or dissonance that we experience at various moments of our lives. Sometimes these moments of reckoning are brought on by an external event: losing a job; losing a loved one; a big birthday; retirement; a pandemic. Sometimes they’re simply the result of some internal growth that we’ve undergone, some book or article that shifted our thinking, some new and better understanding of ourselves that we’ve arrived at over time.

And that dissonance can feel really hard. We gain a lot of security in life by from defining ourselves around the things we do and accomplish: our titles, our careers, our relationships, our habits.  So when those things change or no longer feel right, it can feel like the very ground is moving beneath our feet. It can feel like something is wrong with us. But it actually means that something is right.

The Jungian analyst James Hollis says that these symptoms of distress – these “seismic ripples,” [4] as he calls them, are “to be welcomed, for they represent not only an instinctually grounded self underneath the acquired personality but a powerful imperative for renewal.”[5]

In other words, when your outside feels out of sync with your inside, it means that you’re starting to get in touch with what’s inside. That means that you are ripe for the transformation that comes with aligning the two.

By the way, Hollis refers this the “Middle Passage.” (I’ll give you a little bit of Jungian jargon.) He says that at some point in our lives, almost every one of us feels called to a Second Adulthood – an adulthood where we focus less on proving ourselves to the world and more on living our most authentic life.

We have another word for that in our culture: we call it a midlife crisis. And we tend to make fun of it – you know, you buy a sportscar or go off to an ashram.

But while our dissonance might sometimes feel like crisis, it’s actually something much deeper and with much greater potential for transformation. Here I’m quoting Brene Brown. She says:

It’s an unraveling—a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re “supposed” to live…. When you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.[6]

That’s what Adam and Eve are doing when they leave the Garden of Eden and go out into the world to figure themselves out. It’s also what Abraham and Sarah are doing when they set off for the Promised Land at the ages of 65 and 75 because they heard a voice asking them big questions.

Our texts are filled with this idea because it turns out it’s a universal experience. Since the beginning of people, people have felt the call to clarify their values and to live authentically.

That’s always been true. And it may be truer right now than ever before in our lifetime.

This past year and a half we have all lived through something deeply destabilizing. The pandemic changed so much. It confined us to our homes, it separated us from people we love; it shifted our working and learning patterns; it turned grocery stores and restaurants into scary places to be avoided; it put screens in front of our faces all day long.

Talk about seismic ripples. Compared with two years ago, we now work differently, play differently, communicate, study, date, shop, exercise, pray and socialize differently. Some of us have lost jobs. Some have lost loved ones. All of us have had our security shaken.

It would be shocking if we weren’t asking ourselves big questions right now.

Time Magazine printed an article a few months ago called “Why the Covid-19 Pandemic Has Caused a Widespread Existential Crisis.” They reported what I’m sure we already know – that lots of people are rethinking their lives and their choices right now. 

In that article, Dr. Elinore McCance Katz, who leads the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, notes that the pandemic “gives people a lot of time to review their lives and think about what life could look like moving forward… to really spend time taking an inventory of what their life is like currently and what they want it to be like.”

That’s the very definition of Cheshbon Hanefesh – of our High Holy Day work of taking an accounting of the soul.

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook, asking how people have changed their lives or their thinking during the pandemic. And I got some really amazing answers – some of them from some of you.

  • We are discussing how to limit our travel going forward, both to make a less hectic family life and to go easier on the climate.
  • I discovered how little I actually need.
  • Saying yes to opportunities with family, friends, travel, learning etc seems to have taken on increased urgency. 

People reported that they were prioritizing things other than work, that they were spending more time outdoors, wearing less makeup. That the pandemic helped make them aware of their privilege, and want to help others.

My neighbour stopped me on the street after seeing that post, to tell me that the pandemic had given him the courage to create his own business, and that he’s waking up happier every day than ever before.

We are living in a moment that is asking us big questions. Questions about where we are and where we’re going, about what we believe in and how we want to be living our lives.

It is asking us: “Ayeka – Where are you?”

The Hasidim tell a wonderful story I know I’ve told in sermons before, but that bears repeating in light of the pandemic. It’s about Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, who lay on his deathbed weeping. His students asked him, “Rebbe, why are you weeping about going to the next world? You have been almost as wise as Moses and almost as kind as Abraham.” 

Reb Zusya answered, “I weep because, when I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Moses.’ And they won’t ask me ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Abraham?’ Rather, they will ask me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’”

On these High Holy Days, in these late days of the Covid pandemic, it is worth asking: What does it mean to be more like myself?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we all need to feel pressured to transform ourselves and our lives. But it does mean that it’s OK to give ourselves permission to think deeply and critically about identity, and values, and choices. It means that it’s OK to take care of yourself; it’s OK to rethink things. It’s OK if next year doesn’t look exactly the same as last year. After all, we’re not the same after the last year. It means it’s OK to be unsure about some things right now – since the High Holy Days are a time of more questions than answers.

Maybe above all, though, it means that right now – this Rosh Hashanah, this September, this new year – can be a time of renewal.  A time to learn from ourselves and about ourselves. A time to begin to reconnect with the values, the activities, the causes, the people, the ideas that bring us fulfillment and goodness. A time to begin to reconnect with ourselves.

Ayeka – Where are you?

The universe calls these words to us. May we answer with our words and our deeds. May we take out our roadmap; consider where we are and where we’ve been. And may we give ourselves the permission to start dreaming about where we are going.

[1] The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks, p. 23.
[2] Malbim on Gen. 3:9
[3] Rashi on Gen 3:9
[4] The Middle Passage, by James Hollis, p. 17.
[5] Ibid 15.
[6]The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown.

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