On Rosh Hashanah we remember: as family gathers to make motzi over two round challot, signifying a full year, we see the seat once occupied by Mom, now filled with another.
On Yom Kippur, we remember. We remember who used to sit on our right side, and who used to sit on our left. We feel their physical presence, almost tangible. Their spiritual presence surrounding us as we pray with new friends and loved ones who now sit on our right, and sit on our left.
On Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot we remember. The three pilgrimage-agricultural festivals “Shalosh Regalim” command us to worship together, to bring God into our midst, and to remember our history.
Pesach reminds us not only of the coming of spring.
On Pesach we remember our exodus from Eygpt, God bringing us forward through the sea, the Mitzrayim-our narrow places. We recline around the table, recalling the details of our formation as a Jewish nation. We look around the room, almost seeing grandma in her usual spot, grandpa davening the Seder, or God forbid, a child scampering underneath the table around our feet. They are shadows now in our midst.
On Shavuot we remember. We remember pulling up the late spring harvest. We remember how we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, and committed ourselves to do as God commands, and to understand the meaning behind our new lives as a Jewish nation.
We conclude Sukkot, this day of Shmini Atzeret: we remember how we wandered in the desert as a new people for 40 years, relying upon God for food and protection. We join together with our friends and family, decorating the sukkah and breaking bread together within its walls. Our hearts slightly torn as we notice those who are missing from our celebration.
And there are so many more times we remember. Birthdays and anniversaries, and family traditions. We are a communal people, gathering together in prayer and in celebration, bringing God into our midst.
How do we bring God into our midst as we notice the vacant spaces, as we miss the great belly laughs, secret jokes, the special mandle-broit and homemade gefilte fish. The smell of horseradish coming from the food grinder. The warm hugs, quick wit, quiet love, gentle hands. The smell of perfume.
How do we welcome God amidst the pain that we feel? Whether it is fresh and recent, or is now faded scar; it is so hard to reach for God in these moments, as we remember those whom we have loved fiercely. We remember those who left this world gracefully at their own time, or those who fought with strength and fervor. All have left us too soon, and it is so easy to be angry at God, who created a world where all creation is destined for an end that is too soon.
God places Godself in the each of these particular times of the year. We are commanded to remember God’s sheltering presence during our 40 years of wandering. God is always there. As we roamed the dessert God was there as a pillar of cloud by day, so that we could be protected within a great sukkat shalom. God was there as a pillar of fire by night, to keep away our enemies- human and animal. To give us light amid the blackest of nights. As we prayed in the mishkan, our portable sanctuary- our spiritual center in the desert, God descended upon us in a cloud, signifying God’s presence among God’s people.
This week we read the words of Ki Tisa, the special Torah portion for Sukkot that recalls God’s cloud presence among the people in the Mishkan. So God is here today, in our own Mishkan. In this spiritual center of our community. Can you feel the gentle presence? The invisible shield wrapping around us, holding us up when we feel as though we are falling low.
At their lowest moment, the Israelite people having defiled God with their golden idols, Moses cries out to this cloud:
“Adonai Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun. Erech Apayim v’Rav Chessed v’Emet. Notzeir Chesed La-ala-fim, Noseh A-von Va-fesha v’Chata-a” Adonai Adonai, You are Our God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” Exodus 34:6-7
We may not feel God’s presence in the moment. We might feel as though God is oceans and light years away from us. But let us not despair. God is searching for us as well. Yehuda Halevy, a 13th century poet illumines that we only need to take but one hesitant step. Ask one hesitant, perhaps fearful question… God, are you there? God, I am in despair. God….why?
The answers we crave may forever be a mystery, but in that trembling step, the hesitant reaching out, God will find us, even if we do not yet know God’s presence, because God yearns for our presence. . We can yell at God as Moses did, we can relax into God’s silent and invisible presence as the Israelite people did.
As we grieve, for those whom we have loved and lost, we can remember that they are part of God’s creation.
We lift up the gifts that they gave us: creation, unending and unconditional love, gentle hands, belly laughs, secret jokes. Warm hugs, quick wit, quiet love. The smell of perfume. We are in these moments, lost in our memories.
Let us be still, and know that Adonai is with us as we remember them now.