Where are you coming from and where are you going?” — Genesis 16:8
This is the question the angel of God asks Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant and Avram’s second wife, when she runs away from Sarai’s harsh treatment.
Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Why does the messenger ask her this question, which is read from the Torah on the first day of Rosh HaShanah? God knows who Hagar is, God knows where Hagar is from, God doesn’t need to ask.
But Hagar does. Perhaps the messenger poses these questions to Hagar because these are the questions that Hagar must ask herself. Hagar needs to take responsibility for her actions; she must evaluate what role she had in creating the dynamics of her family situation. Regardless of the power differential in her relationship with Sarai and Avram, Hagar still has agency for her own behavior. And she must decide where she is going.
We all have that responsibility. Even when we feel our situations bind us, we have the power to make decisions that can transform the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. These two questions are the questions we must ask ourselves every year during the month of Elul. These are the questions that form the basis for teshuvah — self-accounting and return.
Where are we coming from and where are we going?
Elul is a month of introspection. A month when we are tasked with looking back at our experiences of the previous year, evaluating where we came from, and making the conscious decisions about where we are going. Did we create enough positive interactions with the people in our lives? Did we open doors for relationships or slam them shut? When others treated us harshly, how did we respond? Where can we look to improve upon our actions from past year to help guide us on a better path in the year to come?
This summer I had the honor and the pleasure to lead discussions in three different Jewish settings and with three different communities of adult Jewish learners, on questions about God and how we communicate with the Divine. I called the class “Talking to God, Finding our Voice.” We discussed challenges we had regarding the idea of God, the nature of God, and our need for God. We expressed fear and reluctance as well as yearning and desire for connection. We shared words that brought us closer to each other and to God. Ultimately, all of our conversations centered on how we can tap into our own power to build resilience by connecting to God, both outside of ourselves and within.
What I found most remarkable about all the learning was the holy community we built within each learning space. Each group developed close bonds, asked big questions, shared their vulnerabilities, and trusted the learning and the confidentiality of the space.
When I ask myself those questions this year — Where am I coming from and where am I going? — I can say that I am coming from a place of wonder. I am in “radical amazement” (to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) of the spiritual hearts of my students and fellow learners. Our people are yearning. I feel blessed to have been able to take the risk of sharing my own perceptions of God, our tradition’s various perceptions, and our modern desires and needs.
Personally, I am on a path that is going deeper and deeper into the forest that will change me. In some ways, I feel like the Chozeh of Lublin. When he was just a child, the Chozeh used to go into the woods every day. One day, his father, worried, asked him, “Son, why are you going into the woods alone every day?” The boy responded, “Papa, I am going into the woods to find God.” His father quizzically responded, and said, “But son, don’t you know God is the same everywhere.” The boy looked his father in the eye and said, “Yes, I know, Papa, but I am different.”
We need to take the risks to ask the questions that will help us transform ourselves. How can we be different? Where can we be different — in our institutions, in our approaches to each other, and in our assessments of ourselves? The deeper we go into the forest of self-discovery and self-assessment, the closer we get to finding a God who speaks to us.
Take the time this month to ask yourself: Where am I coming from and where am I going? Chances are you will see both bright lights of illumination and dark moments of sadness, fear, and insecurity. Both experiences are part of our lives; both experiences help us become the people we are and ought to be. Hagar had the bright light of life within her body, yet she shared that light in a way that diminished Sarai. And then, Sarai’s pain and anguish caused her to behave in a way that was also dark and demeaning. Everything we do has the power to affect those around us in both positive and negative ways. We are never alone in our actions.
Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Wishing you a meaningful Elul and the power to ask.
Lisa Lisser of South Orange, a freelance adult Jewish educator in New York and New Jersey, received her master’s of religious education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She has been a lay leader with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ for over 18 years and is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.