Shabbat Shuva: Until We Hear God’s Call

Parshat Vayelech
October 8, 2016 — 8 Tishrei 5777

There was a haunting piece that appeared in the New York Times this week.  It was a story about a rabbi and his sermon which continues to reverberate today.    

The sermon was titled “Five Minutes to Live.”  It was motivated by the events of 1986, by the tragic explosion of the Challenger and the later revelation that the astronauts on board had been alive until the space craft crashed into the ocean.  The rabbi, Rabbi Kenneth Berger (no relation), asked his congregation to imagine themselves in the shoes of those astronauts, to ask themselves what they would do were they to find themselves in a situation in which they came to realize they only had five minutes left to live.  He asked his community how that awareness would affect the way they chose to live their life.  The sermon is poignant and well written—it hits you and continues to echo as you mull it over.  

But what made his sermon famous is not only the quality of the ideas which he shares, or the fact that during the Yamim Noraim—the High Holiday season—we are all in a space of contemplating our mortality.  What immortalized his sermon was the fact that Rabbi Kenneth Berger found himself in the very situation he preached about only a few short years later.    

On the way home from a family vacation in 1989, the airplane upon which Rabbi Berger and his family were travelling had a freak accident.  The tail exploded.  Passengers were alerted to expect a crash landing and nervously waited for forty long minutes until the plane came to the ground in a fiery cloud.  Rabbi Berger sat holding the hands of his children, comforting them to the best of his ability.  His wife, Aviva, had fainted.  Although neither he nor his wife survived the crash, he was able to be present for his children until the plane came to the ground.  He was able to live out the Torah he had taught during the High Holidays only a few years previously.  And his children’s last memories of him are of his comforting presence and love as they faced a terrifying reality.  

But for a moment, I want to take a step back.  Back to before the plane crash, to before Rabbi Berger delivered his sermon, to the moment when he was sitting in his study with his yellow legal pad and his favorite sermon-writing pen.  What caused Rabbi Berger to write about the Challenger?  Was it an intuition?  Was it God directing him?  Was it merely a coincidence—just what everyone was talking about?  Or did he have a deep sense that what he and his community needed most in the world was the Torah of five minutes?  Did it help him, when he found himself breathing into those five minutes over and over again as he sat with his family on that plane?   

There is something profound about the way that God or the universe or Rabbi Berger’s own intuition directed him to process and share about a reality which had not yet unfolded in his life.  There is something incredible about the way in which his children and friends could look back to those words for comfort.  Not only to the words he shared in that sermon, but also to the words he shared with them on that plane and to way he lived out his Torah with every breath he took. 

In some ways, it reminds me of a story that comes early on in the Torah.  Jacob is running away from his family, from his enraged brother, Esau, who is seething after the betrayal of the stolen birthright.  Jacob is fleeing for his life.  He is all alone.  I imagine him running with great heaving breaths, coming to a stop in the middle of nowhere, collapsing in a heap on the ground.  He has nothing of consequence with him so he places his head on a stone and falls into the heavy sleep of exhaustion.  But God meets him in his dreams and he has the vision of the sulam, the connection between heaven and earth, and sees the angels moving up and down the ladder. 

The next morning he wakes up and exclaims אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה, ואנכי לא ידעתי—מה נורא המקום הזה. “My God, God is here and I had no idea!  How awesome is this place!”   

Jacob did not know that he was being directed.  He did not know that God was with him.  But at some point along the way, he could look back and see the way in which his actions had been directed.  He could see that God was with him.   

We have all had these moments.  Moments when we have been travelling through life unaware of the significance of our actions or the events that are unfolding, when suddenly we turn around in surprise to discover that the universe has been conspiring in our favor all along.  Moments like when we miss a train and go to the ticket office to figure out a new way home only to find ourselves standing in front of the love of our life.  Moments like when we get rejected from a dream job only to discover that there was a better option lying in wait.  Moments like when we go to the store to get eggs, but they’re out, so we go to a different store and discover our favorite ice cream is on sale. 

Whether you call it God or a beautiful coincidence, these moments warm our hearts and give us the sense that we are not alone in this work of life.  Our stories are full of twists and turns we could never have imagined.  And sometimes, we reach a point where we can look back and say “ah, I see.  God was there and I didn’t even know it.” 

Today is Shabbat Shuva.  It’s the first Shabbat of the year, the Shabbat that’s sandwiched in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is called Shabbat Shuva because it is a time of tshuva, of heshbon hanefesh—soul accounting and return.  It’s also called Shabbat Shuva because of the first words of the haftarah portion, “שובה ישראל עד ה’ אלוקיך” which is usually translated as Return, oh Israel to the Lord your God.  עד ה’ to God.  But עד can also mean until.  In other words, this Shabbat Shuva, this High Holiday season, we are returning to God, but we are also returning until God.  Until the place where we can become aware of God’s presence.  We are coming back to ourselves, to the deep places in our hearts where we can listen to our intuition and trust our gut feelings.  We are coming back to the places where we can be open to the mysteries in the world.  We are coming back to places where we are open to finding God showing up unexpectedly in our lives.   

Years ago, a family friend was driving home with her husband.  The night was slippery and cold.  Intermittent snowflakes had given way to blizzard conditions and the woman was having difficulty seeing the road in front of her.  She kept turning down different streets, following what felt right to her.  Her husband started to get frustrated.  “This isn’t the way home” he said, “you needed to stay on that street.”  “Where are you going?  Do you even know where that street goes?”  “I don’t know what to tell you, honey” the woman said, “it just feels like where I need to be.”  They kept driving.  She kept turning where it felt right; her husband kept trying to convince her to go back.  Finally they ended up on a narrow street—staring straight into the tail lights of a car parked and running in the snow.   

The couple got out and went up to the window of the car in front of them to ask for directions.  When they knocked, on the window, the woman inside the car rolled down her window with a sigh.  “Thank God!” she said.  As they spoke with her, they learned that she had gotten her car stuck in a snow drift and couldn’t get out.  Her medications were wearing off, and she was having trouble moving.  She had been afraid that she would die in the snow.  The couple brought her into their car while they dug her out, and then she directed them back out to her home and then to theirs. 

We don’t always know where we are going or why we have the experiences we do.  All we can do is the best we can.  All we can do is make sure that we are ready and listening to our inner voices so that we are prepared for whatever comes our way and we can be present to help those around us.  The Slonimer Rebbe used to teach that we have each been deployed to this planet on a mission of healing.  The greatest blessing is for us to return to a place where we can hear that Divine call and step up to the plate.