God is the space between the one who needs and the one who is needed.
This past June, I did something that seemed totally reasonable. I drove to Boston on a quarter tank of gas. I made it. It was fine. I had used what looked like less than an eighth of a tank. I parked on a quiet street in Jamaica Plain and ran into my friend Riva. We chatted for a few minutes, and I proudly shared my accomplishment of making it to Boston using less than an eighth of a tank of gas.
And then I checked my back pocket and realized: no wallet. I opened my car door, poked around. No wallet. I checked my bag where my wallet often goes, and still no wallet. I had indeed left my wallet 41 miles away at my home in Providence, R.I. And in it, my cash, my credit cards and my driver’s license.
Riva offered to lend me 10 bucks so I could get some gas and make it back to Providence later that night. Confident in my 2004 Toyota Echo, I told Riva that I appreciated the offer, but I’d be fine. When it came time to head back to Providence, I got into my car, turned the key, looked at the gas gauge and set out to I-95.
As I made my way south down the interstate, I watched my fuel gauge gradually move closer to that big, scary “E.” That “E” that would mean the end of the road. The “E” that would mean calling triple A and getting towed.
Then I hit a major slowdown. There was construction for what seemed like forever, and the cars all around me were inching along. So, I inched, and I inched. I did my best to roll slowly forward without touching the gas pedal, occasionally breaking as we hit a standstill, then letting up on the break and inching again, nervously accelerating, fearfully watching the gas gauge move closer and closer to “E.” And then it hit “E.” And then it started to go below “E.” As I sat there, anxiously trying to neither break nor accelerate, I wondered, why didn’t I take Riva up on that offer for $10? What held me back from recognizing that I could only get by with a little help from my friend?
And then I began thinking about Avraham, our ancient forefather. Avraham, who nearly slaughtered his son on a mountain.
This story, read by Jews worldwide on Rosh Hashanah, begins with an acknowledgment that God is “testing” Avraham. But what the test is, and whether Avraham passes or fails, is something I wrestle with yearly. Does Avraham pass because he’s willing to offer his son as a sacrifice? Does Avraham fail because he’s willing to offer his son as a sacrifice? Does he pass because he is pious and obedient? Does he fail because he lacks a moral compass? What is the test, and how do we know how Avraham did?
Most years, I find myself thinking that Avraham passes the test for one reason or another. This year, I’m not so sure. This year, I’m thinking that Avraham fails.
Our story begins with God telling Avraham to take his son—the son that he loves, Yitzhak (Isaac)—and offer him up as a sacrifice on a mountain. The first thing that Avraham does in the story is that he wakes up early in the morning. This may seem innocuous—this waking up early in the morning. It may even seem praiseworthy. But this waking up early is precisely where Avraham fails.
Radak, a rabbi and commentator in medieval Spain, explains that Avraham rose early to carry out God’s bidding without telling his wife, Sarah, anything about it. He was afraid that she might do harm to herself out of her love for Yitzhak. The intention here is good. He wants to protect his wife from the abhorrent act he is about to commit, to save her from the pain and suffering. But in doing so, Avraham isolates himself. He cuts himself off from his life-partner. In his attempt to be independent, Avraham fails.
Avraham fails because he ignores a fundamental truth about what it means to be alive—and that is that no person, no being, is independent. Independence is a myth.
Each of us as individuals cannot exist without a vast array of networks. Every morning, our liturgy gives us a blessing to say, describing God as she’asah li kol tzorkhi, which is usually translated as something like “who has met all of my needs.” But in fact, God has not met all of our needs. If only that were true! Rather, it must mean that God has made all of our needs. Our needs are God-given. Our needs are Divine. Our needs are what make us human.
Our needs are what create connections. Without them, we would live cut off from others, without relationship. We would be independent in the deepest and most violent sense of the word. We would be alone.
We need each other in the most fundamental of ways. We need the planet. We need our water. We need our air. We need our food.
Even God has needs, and God needs us. When Moshe (Moses) encounters the burning bush, he hears his name twice, “Moshe, Moshe!” An ancient rabbinic teaching on these two words compares God to someone overloaded by an excessively heavy burden who cries out all in one breath, “Somebody, somebody! Come quickly and take this load off me!” That is, faced with the enslavement and suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, God was overwhelmed. God was burdened. God had needs. God needed Moshe.
This is not the omnipotent God that many of us learn about as children. This is a God of vulnerability—a God of interconnectedness, a God of interdependence.
In our Torah reading today, an angel interrupts Avraham before he sacrifices his son, calling Avraham, Avraham! The angel too is burdened. Burdened with the task of saving Yitzhak and needing Avraham’s help to make that happen. Avraham, Avraham. Moshe, Moshe. These Divine voices call out, calling us closer, calling us into relationship with one another and with God.
These holidays, we, too, will call out with the same kind of urgency, this same doubling of the name of the One we need—ADONAI, ADONAI, el rahum vehanun … Adonai, Adonai. We, too, are burdened with a heavy load. We, too, are calling out. In urgency. In need. In longing.
It is the Israelites’ needs that cause God to have needs and reach out to Moshe. It is God’s needs that bring God to reach out to Moshe. It is Moshe’s needs that bring him to reach out to his sister and brother, and the Israelites.
God is the space between the one that needs and the one that is needed. God is the invisible connective tissue that brings us together. God does not solve our problems; God is the possibility of solving our problems together.
When we are cut off from God—when we are cut off from this possibility—we become like Avraham at his worst. When we are faced with problems—whether it is God asking us to sacrifice a loved one, or the enslavement of an entire people, or if we are just having a hard day—we have a choice: between independence and interdependence, between isolation and connection, between cutting ourselves off and reaching out to God.
We face these choices each and every day. It can be exhausting to seek help. To acknowledge the powerful connection that our needs can create. But it is even more exhausting to choose isolation, to live cut off from our people, to live cut off from the gifts that our needs offer us.
This is the choice that Avraham made when he cut himself off from Sarah, trying to protect her from his needs instead of acknowledging the divinity of interconnection. Who knows what would have happened if he had turned to her and said, “Hey Sarah, I think God just asked me to do this wild thing. What do you think I should do?”
I made a similar choice that day in June when Riva offered to lend me $10 for gas to make it back to Providence. Like Avraham, I chose to be cut off from connection. As the fuel gauge went lower and lower below empty, my anxiety increased as I imagined my car suddenly unable to move in what was, because of construction, now a one-lane highway.
So, I started to pray. I asked God for a little Hanukkah-esque miracle—that even though there was only enough gas for one mile, could it please burn for the remaining 20 miles? I asked God to bring me home safely and speedily. I asked God not to make me and my car the object of hatred and derision for hundreds of drivers behind me if my car petered out.
Then, something miraculous happened. The gas gauge went up a bit. I don’t generally believe in a God that supernaturally intervenes in my life. And yet, something happened that night. Maybe it was God. Maybe it was my old car’s gauge being inconsistent in its readings. I don’t know.
But in recognizing my own limitations, my need for support from Riva, from God … something sacred did happen that night in my Toyota Echo. My needs, miraculously met, are an opportunity to be in relationship with others. To build connections. To be connected.
Based on a talk delivered at Brown-RISD Hillel, Rosh Hashanah 5780.
Rabbi Alex Weissman (RRC ’17) serves as the Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, MA and as the Rabbinic Organizer at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Previously, Alex served as the senior Jewish educator at Brown RISD Hillel, where he taught Torah and Jewish practice, and fostered creative approaches to Jewish life. While a student at RRC, Alex served as a rabbinic intern with Avodah, piloting a new model of Jewish and spiritual support for young activists. He worked with JOIN for Justice as their Philadelphia Area Coordinator, exploring new opportunities for JOIN. He was also a Social Justice Rabbinic Intern with Congregation Rodeph Shalom and POWER, supporting their multifaith congregation based community organizing, and was a summer fellow with T’ruah. Alex also served two synagogues, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and Temple Shalom of Newton, as a rabbinical intern.
Prior to attending rabbinical school, Alex worked at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah as their first Social Justice Coordinator, moving forward campaigns to support LGBTQ homeless youth and LGBTQ eldercare, in addition to creating learning and training opportunities for Jewish clergy to deepen their skills in serving LGBTQ communities. He was in the inaugural cohort of the Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, during which he served as chair of the Sh’lom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers campaign and later served as a member of the board of directors.
Prior to his work as a community organizer, Alex worked in LGBTQ public health at Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, Fenway Community Health, and the Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training. Alex lives in Providence, R.I., with his partner, Adam, the source of much Alex’s gratitude.