Ready to be changed

This week we’re taking a break from the regular cycle of Torah readings. Our special Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, the Shabbat that comes in the midst of this festival, returns us to the book of Exodus.

In this Torah portion, Moshe pleads with God, “Let me behold Your presence!” And God says “Yes! — and no.” God says, “I will make My goodness pass before you, but no one can look upon Me and live.” God says, “Let Me protect you in this cleft of a rock, and after I pass by, you can see my afterimage.”

This is among the most intense and profound moments in Torah. We could spend hours exploring this text… and instead I have two minutes.

I was talking about that this week with my learning partner — after all, rabbis keep learning too — and the question arose: so how long did it take for God to pass by? Probably none of us believe that God has a physical body, so this question is about Moshe’s awareness. In Moses-time, maybe it took two minutes. Probably it happened in a flash. An experience — even a life-changing one — can unfold in two minutes. But understanding that experience, integrating it into the fullness of our lives, can take a lifetime.

The teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, said that “theology is the afterthought of the believer. You never have someone coming up with a good theology if he or she didn’t first have an experience.” Experience comes first. Our attempts to understand that experience come after.

Understanding can happen in the body, when we feel something viscerally. Or in the mind, or the heart, or the spirit. Often it’s one but not the other — you know how sometimes you know something in your head, but your heart hasn’t yet gotten the memo? Experience is easy. Understanding is harder.

Your years at Williams are like that too, filled with experiences that might take you weeks, or months, or a lifetime to fully explore. The thing is, we never know which moment will be the moment when an experience knocks us off our feet and changes us. We have to be open to it whenever it comes.

And that takes me back to Pesach. When it was time to leave slavery, the children of Israel had to go right then. No time to let their bread dough rise, just — time to go, now, ready or not. One minute they were hemmed-in and trapped, and the next minute they were faced with wide-open possibility.

The haggadah says each of us should see ourselves as though we ourselves had experienced that transformation. Every life is filled with Exodus moments: when everything you thought you understood turns upside-down, when you realize your world is more expansive than you ever knew, when you have to take a leap into the unfamiliar and unknown.

A life-changing experience could happen anytime. Going from constriction to freedom could happen anytime. Liberation from life’s narrow places, or God’s presence passing before us in such a way that we feel the presence of goodness, could happen right now. Our job is to be ready for the experience of being changed.

That kind of mindful living takes practice. College is busy. Life is busy. The life-changing experience of a moment may be a gift of grace, or a total accident. But good practice makes us accident-prone.

So here’s a blessing for being prone to the best kind of accidents, the serendipity that can change a life in the blink of an eye, the two minutes that can last a lifetime, two minutes that can change a life.

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services.  (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Image by Jack Baumgartner. [Source.]