In this series of short blog posts from TOS staff and lay leaders, you’ll learn what each of us is most proud of about TOS. Each of these aspects is a snapshot that represents part of the diverse collage that makes Ohabei Shalom so special. Enjoy! And let us know what you think.
Temple Ties – Shabbat Vaeira (Sermon delivered on Jan 8, 2016)
I’d like to open by challenging you to name the TV sitcom that has these lyrics as its theme song: “Where everybody knows your name and they are always glad you came.”
“Cheers” was a bar in Boston, a place where “regulars” met to drink, to socialize, to leave their worries behind. It was a place where you felt welcome –where, as the theme song says: “people knew your name and were glad you came.”
It might seem strange, but this theme song popped into my head when I read the first lines of this week’s Torah portion. God tells Moses: “I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai but by my name –Eternal, I was not known to them.” What does it mean -to be known by one name rather than another? And more fundamentally, what does it mean to know someone by name? Is it just about their name or is it a deeper knowledge? Tonight, with our brand-new Ohabei Shalom directories in hand listing each of our names I’d like to ask: how do we come to this deeper knowledge of each other’s names?
What are our Hebrew names, what are our nicknames –those funky names given to us that reflect something unique about who we are. Did you know, for example, that many people call me Pollo, which means chicken? Just to be clear: in Spanish it doesn’t mean “lacking in courage.” The reason my parents gave me this name is because I ate very little; apparently, I just picked from my plate. The name stuck and all my classmates and teachers in school used it. Today my family, including my nieces and nephews, call me by this name. As for the congregation, since Rabbi Pollo doesn’t sound very professional, I’ll keep Rabbi Sonia.
But let’s circle back to Torah. What does it mean that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God by one name but not by the name that God was known to Moses or the Israelites?
Does this mean that our spiritual ancestors didn’t actually know God that well? The interesting thing is this: despite what our verse says, when we look back at Genesis, we discover that the name “Eternal” which is the name God uses when he reveals himself to Moses is in fact used as a name of God by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our verse seems to be implying that what the patriarchs didn’t know was the deeper meaning of this name. When God identifies himself as the Eternal to Moses he is about to free the Israelites from bondage. The patriarchs, however, never experienced this side of God; the God who frees the oppressed.
But, you might ask: if the patriarchs didn’t know this key aspect of God, God as redeemer -can we really say they knew God well? The answer that our tradition gives is a resounding “yes.” Otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense that when we say the Amidah, our central prayer, we invoke their names, by chanting: elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzhak v’elohei Jacov. We refer to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – precisely because of the strength of their relationship with God. Their knowledge of God might have been incomplete but it was still deep.
And this is an important lesson to remember when we think about our own relationships with others. We can know someone very deeply but we cannot ever fully, completely know them or be fully known to them. Not so much because we are mysteries with secrets locked away but because there is so much potential for grow and change within us. To be created in the image of God means to contain that same potential for unexpected growth and change. Even when we know someone very well, we can still be surprised by new qualities, new aspects of them that emerge in different circumstances. Even years into a relationship, we can still reveal a new name.
So back to Cheers –that mythical bar in Boston where everyone knows your name; and back to our own community, this very real place where we hope to create opportunities and experiences that allow us to reveal the many layers that make up our name. How do we do this?
In large part, we do this by facilitating connections in small groups. This month, for example, we are re-launching our Shalom at Home initiative where we come together in people’s homes and provide a forum for engaging in truly meaningful conversations. And tonight, we encourage you to let us know what you might be interested in pursuing together with a small group from the TOS community: maybe it’s hiking, or perhaps something a bit more sedentary like a book club. Regardless of what it is, the important thing it to put it out there –-on the big piece of paper that’s up in Penn Spero.
In closing, I will purposefully misuse my nick name, Pollo, to urge not to be a chicken, not to be afraid of stretching beyond your comfort zone; of meeting new people, of opening up and in the process, strengthening the ties that bind us to each other. May we achieve this deeper -and ever-changing knowledge of each other’s names, and may this be a place where you are always glad you came!