Shemot - 5779
This year on Christmas I encountered God.
Standing in darkness at the fringe of the Cambodian jungle, I watched as the dawn’s light revealed in silhouette the stupas of Angkor Wat rising majestically towards the heavens. Though I was familiar with the contours of the structure, a building so iconic that it features on the Cambodian national flag, and while I had set out at 5:00 a.m. that morning with the explicit purpose of observing sunrise in that setting, I nevertheless experienced the spectacle with a visceral sense of shock and awe. I knew I was witnessing the hand of mankind reaching out to touch the face of God.
It was not just I who was moved by the power of the moment. The crowds who had gathered (literally) from the four corners of the Earth grew silent as the massive stone carvings emerged from the shadows and then began processing spontaneously towards the complex’s central core. At the same time, the jungle itself seemed to burst into song, a profusion of insects, monkeys and birds all heralding the breaking day.
As paintings on cave walls testify, humanity’s experience of wonder in the face of nature’s majesty extends far into our prehistoric past. We are, many of us, so profoundly moved by our raw encounters with the diversity and richness of creation, that it leads us to wonder what role exists for religion, an institutionalized codification of these transformative experiences into sometimes hollow rituals and empty words.
But in the dawn’s first light, the answer to this question came to me unbidden: Mah rabu ma’asekha Adonai, kulam b’hokhmah asita, malah ha’aretz kinyanekha (“How wondrous and varied is Your work, Adonai; You have fashioned it with wisdom; Your works fill Creation, Ps. 104:24), the words that we recite every Rosh Chodesh as the moon’s return following a period of darkness marks the arrival of a new month.
The impetus for spirituality is already innate in Creation, and it is often in our unfiltered encounters with nature that we are moved to wonder at the world’s majesty. But it is in religion, the curated experiences of generations who have stood in these places before us and experienced the same sense of awe, that we find the vocabulary to express the ineffable and the tools to join ourselves to its Source.
Wishing everyone a moment of transcendence this Shabbat and a happy, healthy entry into the (secular) new year,
-- Rabbi Rachel Safman