Seventy Faces of Torah Angels in the Wilderness
Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuva, Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Early in Genesis we find Hagar, with dust in her hair and on her feet. Hagar is Abraham’s handmaid, pregnant with his first and oldest son, running from her master’s home. She runs furiously into the wilderness and stops by an עֵין הַמַּיִם, a spring or more literally, an eye of water. In Genesis 16:7-8 we read:
|And an angel of the Lord found her [Hagar] by a water fountain in the desert, by the fountain on the road to Shur.||וַיִּמְצָאָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה עַל עֵין הַמַּיִם בַּמִּדְבָּר עַל הָעַיִן בְּדֶרֶךְ שׁוּר:|
|And the angel said, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where are you coming from, and where are you going to?” And she said, “From before Sarai my mistress, I am fleeing.”||וַיֹּאמַר הָגָר שִׁפְחַת שָׂרַי אֵי מִזֶּה בָאת וְאָנָה תֵלֵכִי וַתֹּאמֶר מִפְּנֵי שָׂרַי גְּבִרְתִּי אָנֹכִי בֹּרַחַת:|
Suddenly an angel appears and says to Hagar, “From where are you coming and to where are you going?” On this verse, Rashi, our great 11th century commentator, teaches that actually the angel, of course, knew where Hagar was coming from, so the question had two functions. First, to give her an opening to start talking with him and second, on a deeper level, אֵי מִזֶּה [literally: where from this] means: “Where is the place about which you can say, ‘From this place I have come.’”
Hagar responds, I imagine somewhat breathlessly, “I am fleeing my master’s house.” Each time I read this section of Torah I wonder if this is simply Hagar’s opening statement or a deeper description of where she was coming from on a soul level.
Either way, she does not give her destination, perhaps because she doesn’t know where she’s headed. Perhaps her heart is broken, angry or numb.
This time of year, especially on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return, the Shabbat that finds us between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we find ourselves, personally and communally asking ourselves, as if stopped by an angel in the wilderness, “Where am I coming from and where am I going?” The image is full of wild momentum, pregnant with the unknown, layered with texture all coming together at an “eye of water,” a moment of hydration, to hear a messenger of the Holy One ask, “Wait, pause a moment. Where are you?” This moment to check our soul-GPS is one that reminds me of even earlier in Genesis when Creator calls out, speaking to humanity for the very first time, primarily for our benefit, אַיֶּֽכָּה, ayeka, where are you? To me, this question is both eternal and urgent.
As I kid, I remember being very confused by the high holidays. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Rosh Hashana was a time of crisp breezes, leaves turning from green to yellow, muddy grass and searching for shiny chestnuts. School likely had just begun or was about to begin, meaning fresh school supplies, new shoes and my birthday. Rosh Hashana was sweetened with family and apples, honey and new beginnings.
Then came Yom Kippur. It seemed like the party ended just as the guests arrived. Everyone got very serious and solemn, we knocked on our chests to say we were sorry and reflect on the year that had pasted. Our rabbi gave an earth-trembling sermon about justice and our responsibility to make a difference. We sang about who would die and who would live and the shofar blasted and blasted until it rang in our ears, even as we occasionally glazed over, counting the light bulbs in the majestic cathedral dome.
Why, I wondered, and still sometimes wonder, did the holidays come in this order? Shouldn’t we look back and reflect, apologize and recognize our fragility first and then experience new possibilities and new beginnings? At least this way we could take out the trash and then enjoy the party—instead of going through a giant mud puddle upon leaving the car wash, or getting into an argument with someone outside of yoga class.
But the curators of our Jewish calendar were very thoughtful and very real. It was understood then and now that, actually, we need to experience newness and possibility, birth and creativity, redemption and frankly hope, so that we can do the amends, make the repairs, forgive and reaffirm our vision for the New Year.
In the way that Torah portions end on a nechemtas, an uplift, the New Year, Rosh Hashana, begins on one. We reconnect with life, with possibility, with renewal, and in this way, we jumpstart our prospects for return. We fortify our desire and resilience to do the hard, deep work of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return. On this Shabbat alone we are given an extra vitamin, a brand new toothbrush, support to gird our loins. We renew our listening – literally this is the Shabbat Ha’azinu, the Shabbat of Our Listening – in order to hear what Moshe said in his final days. His final telling becomes our new beginning. In hearing his words anew, we solidify our אֵי מִזֶּה, the place about which we can say, ‘From this place I have come.’”
As she flees through the wildness, Hagar receives an essential question and eternal question, especially at this season and Shabbat of Return, of Listening. Shabbat Shuva is a moment to slow down, dust off our feet and have a glass of water long enough to respond the questions: from where are you coming and to where are you going?
Minister Victoria Safford in Minnesota preaches it like this:
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope. Not the prudent gates of optimism, which are somewhat narrower. Not the stalwart, boring gates of common sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges, (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through) nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna’ be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition. The place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but the joy of the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing asking people what they see.”
Whether it’s a dusty desert angel, the mezuzah on our door, a child pulling on our legs, a speeding ticket or lab results… whatever the speed bump in the road, perhaps it might be just in time to save our lives, to hydrate our spirits. Or, at least, make our trek more meaningful, more full of hope.
Rabbi Alyson Solomon was ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2009. She is Associate Rabbi at Beth Israel in San Diego and founder of the spiritual coaching and consulting practice, thisisRAS.com.
Looking for inspiration for the High Holidays? The Hebrew College High Holiday Companion (published in August 2017) is available now for study and reflection during the High Holidays. Learn more. If you are interested in learning more about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, we invite you to our Fall Open House and Day of Learning, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 6.