Waiting for the grand truth
Tazria-Metzora — Leviticus 12:1-13:59/14:1-15:33
Every year about this time, I remember Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic play Waiting for Godot. Beckett refused to identify Godot with God, but this period of the Omer is when Jews wait for God, and the parallel is compelling.
The play features two tragicomic characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who do virtually nothing for two days except wait around for a character named Godot. Similarly, from Passover to Shavuot, the Israelites waited anxiously for God. The two days of waiting for Vladimir and Estragon match the seven weeks waiting on the way to Sinai and the Omer period of counting, where we find ourselves now.
In the play, Godot never arrives; in the Bible, God eventually does. We 21st-century Jews, unfortunately, are likely to identify with Beckett more than Moses. How many of us expect to reach Shavuot with the discovery that God has made a cameo appearance in our lives?
If not our lives, what about the lives of our children? This is a relevant question for this week’s sedra, in particular, not just the Omer in general. The sedra, after all, reminds Itturei Torah about the custom of praying at a brit mila that parents successfully “raise and educate” their about-to-be circumcised children. “Why ‘raise and educate,’ not just ’educate?’” he wonders. The point must be that it’s easy to educate little children, but much harder to influence them when they grow up. The prayer asks that we manage “to raise them and then, still, to educate them — even after they have already grown.” What can parents offer even adult children, the ones who have been through college and, in many ways, know more than their parents do?
Do we have nothing left to impart after our sons and daughters are already fully grown?
What we have to offer depends on whether we cast ourselves as Vladimir and Estragon or as biblical Israelites. Are we just two foolish characters amusing ourselves to death? Or can we testify to some adult experience with God? For most American Jews, the answer is clear: We Jews are great champions of such Passover truisms as freedom and justice, but are too unimaginative to advocate the grand Shavuot truth of God. We willingly warrant the importance of Torah, but water it down to the modest claim of generalized Jewish values that most of us could have learned elsewhere in our lives, and probably did.
Imagination is the key. It is a quality that, for all his literary genius, Beckett himself sometimes sorely lacked. In its obituary on the playwright, The New York Times reported his once walking through a London park on a beautiful summer day, the kind of day, his friend commented, “that makes one glad to be alive.” “Beckett responded, ‘I wouldn’t go that far.’”
Being glad to be alive is an issue of imagination. It does not arise spontaneously from nature, history, or day-by-day affairs. It does follow upon our somehow locating God in the nexus of our lives. But precisely there is where imagination fails us. Imagine your teenager returning from a conclave after spending her first-ever all-night conversation with friends, a rambling philosophical dialogue on love, death, the universe, and everything in between — precisely the kind of starry-eyed thing that teenagers adore. What do you say when she reports her experience?
The response I recommend is, “That’s what I mean by God!”
Why not? It’s all about imagination. Why isn’t the deeply felt connection among friends a sign of God’s presence?
Remember Hamlet, who tells the doubting Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The one thing grown-up children are unlikely to get in our society is the inventive courage to imagine “more things in heaven and earth.” Why can’t parents supply that?
Our problem, perhaps, is that no one imagined that for us. We happily advocate reading great literature for the profound truths it contains, but we live as pre-literates without nerve enough to coin our own metaphors of transcendence.
“To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour.” That’s William Blake. “Mount Sinai was all in smoke…. God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before You.”’ That’s the Bible. Why do we grant imaginative credulity to the first, but not the second?
Will God appear for us at the end of this Omer period? That depends as much on us as on God. We can be more than two characters in a play, waiting only for Godot.