Big questions: Paying attention at every moment of life

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeira (Genesis 18:1–22:24)

There are big questions in life. I’d like to share with you one of them.

One day I was driving along a country road, and, all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see a billboard. Black words on a white background.  And a question. “Are You Here?” “Are You Here?” I mull it over.  “Are You Here?” Syntax clear. But emphasis? What’s the emphasis?  Is it ARE You Here? Something existential. ARE you aware as opposed to NOT? Or maybe it’s “Are YOU Here?” Am I here as opposed to SOMEONE ELSE? The real me or some imposter? Is it “Are you HERE?” Am I HERE instead of SOMEWHERE ELSE? Right here. Right now.

So upon returning home late that night, I googled “Are You Here?” Up comes the work of photographer Jonathan Gitelson, a Jewish artist responsible for these “Are You Here?” billboards. Gitelson’s question is a play on the phrase “You Are Here,” which we find at rest stops (and mall maps). And, unsurprisingly, the question is more than geographical. “Are You Here?” encourages drivers like you and me to be more mindful of that very moment we see the question.

And I am happy to say, it worked! Before I saw the question, I was NOT paying attention to the fullness and beauty of my surroundings. I WAS distracted by music on the stereo. I paid little heed to the sights and sensations whizzing by. I was thinking about my destination which was still miles away and moments ahead. But then I saw the billboard. And on cue, I was drawn in by its simplicity and randomness. And not only did I think about the question in the moment, I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Are You Here? A basic, three-word question. Designed to thrust us out of our spiritual inertia. To awaken us from our spiritual slumber. The question “Are You Here?” hangs the mirror of self-reflection before us as we seek to find our authentic selves amidst work pressures, family dynamics, paying the mortgage and myriad challenges that lull us into sleepwalking through the soulful possibilities of our lives.

“Are You Here?” is an essential question in this week’s Torah portion Vayera–which, among other key topics, is the story of Abraham and the binding of his son Isaac. In the Akedah, G-d calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. “Avraham, [are you here?]” And Abraham says: “Hineni: I am here,” and obeys G-d’s command. Abraham binds Isaac and raises his knife. He says nothing. And we wonder: “What happened to the Abraham who championed the innocent at Sodom and Gomorrah?” “How can he remain silent about his own son?” “Where did his chutzpah go?”

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, along with others in Jewish tradition, makes Abraham out to be a spiritual superhero–a valiant knight of faith willing to sacrifice his son  in stoic silence as the ultimate example of obedience to G-d. But here, I believe, we don’t get the whole story.

As the drama unfolds, G-d sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand. This time, the angel calls out not once but twice. “Avraham….Avraham, [are you here?] Abraham may be valiant, stoic and faithful, but he’s also distracted. Perhaps numb or bewildered. Maybe depressed or grieving, lost in sadness and untapped anger. That’s because he’s already cast out Ishmael and Hagar as a way of fulfilling G-d’s will. And in a moment, he must sacrifice Isaac. Perhaps lost in emotional static, Abraham does not hear the first call. Only the second call startles him to awareness–a focus further sharpened when Abraham looks up suddenly and sees serendipitously a ram stuck in a thicket, caught by its horns. According to the midrash, a now-alert Abraham actually  pushes back against G-d, reminding the Holy One that 1) the promise [and blessing] to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars belongs to Isaac, as well; and, 2) G-d should keep such promises. (Midrash Tanchuma) There’s the chutzpah to which we’ve grown accustomed. There’s the courageous moral imagination.

In the Binding of Isaac, the angels second calling comes to Abraham like a verbal version of our local billboard. “Abraham, Abraham, are you here?” This transformative call truly awakens Abraham. It calls him to a different action. A better action. Not to sacrifice his son. But  to demand more of himself. Of G-d. Of the world. In challenging G-d once again, like he did at Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham proves he is willing to risk everything to pursue what is right. Taking this risk is what it means to live faithfully–to live justly, to live kindly. This is what it means to live with mindful presence, intention and action.

Judaism is the spiritual billboard that catches our eye as our lives whiz right on by. Judaism is the angel’s persistent call on the mountaintop. As we lose ourselves in the fast, distracted pace of our existence, Judaism is the ram in the thicket that captures and renews our focus–as our minds narrow around extraordinary burdens.

Judaism slows us down enough to think deeply about the quality of our lives. It challenges us with profound questions: “Are you here?” “Are you present?” “Are you mindful”? “Are you intentional?”

Judaism raises our awareness. Of G-d’s presence in our lives. Of our capacity for sacred action through mitzvot, through being a force for good. Judaism beckons we pay attention to the truth of each moment and the difference it calls us to make. Judaism awakens us to this truth and helps us see our lives in the Creation we celebrated recently in parashat Bereshit. To recognize our growing capacity to embrace each moment of our lives as a blessing from G-d. To act justly and compassionately. To live with mentschlikeit. To regret wrongdoing. To forgive failure. To make up mistakes. To avoid repeating them. And, ultimately, to live with the simcha, the joy, that comes from fulfilling our potential to make things right and to heal the hurts we have brought others.

As we drive along the life’s winding roads, as we ask big questions and seek even bigger answers, as we trudge through trials and tribulations, as we seek and struggle with faith, and as each of us prepares ourselves to present in making a difference, may we mindfully answer the question “Are you here?” with Abraham’s precious and enduring response, “Hineini: I am here.”

Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).

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