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Toward Shabbat: Lekh Lekha

The first time I saw a sky full—really full—of stars, I was 19 years old. I was in the tiny mountain village of Las Delicias in central Honduras, hours away from any town with electricity. The night sky, unadulterated by light pollution, was beyond beautiful. And it was more than beautiful, more than stunning, more than awesome—looking up at that sky night after night brought me unexpected comfort and peace.

As Mary Oiliver writes in her poem Stars:

How can I hope to be friends
with the hard white stars
whose flaring and hissing are not speech
but pure radiance?….

Tonight, at the edge of the field,
I stood very still, and looked up,
and tried to be empty of words.
What joy was it, that almost found me?
What amiable peace?
Then it was over, the wind
roused up in the oak trees behind me
and I fell back, easily.

That joy, that amiable peace, was indeed fleeting, but there was something about seeing myself as part of the larger story of the galaxies, of the history of a universe that existed long before I did, and would continue to exist long after I die, that momentarily soothed my existential angst (adolescent as it was) and gave me faith in the future.

I’ve never seen a sky like that since, but I return to it in my mind whenever the overwhelmingness of life, or fears about the future, creep in and attempt to take over. The image of that starry sky, as radiant as it was dark, has become a go-to resource in my resilience toolbox. In recent months, I’ve sat with it often, as our world stares into the great unknowns of the pandemic, economic devastation, and what the upcoming presidential election will bring. I sit with this image of my own smallness, and the incredible grandeur of the universe, as I attempt to become a little more comfortable with uncertainty.

I am not the first, nor the only, person who has found comfort in looking at the stars. In our Torah portion this week, Avraham is overcome by fear, even after many promises of reward and blessing. He has been doing everything asked of him: to leave his home, to travel to a land unknown, and to bring a new understanding of God to the world. Yet the future still seems uncertain; promises are still unfulfilled. And Avraham is afraid. In response to this fear, God brings him outside and tells him to look at the heavens and count the stars.
Rashi, quoting a rabbinic midrash, teaches:

הוֹצִיאוֹ מֵחֲלָלוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם וְהִגְבִּיהוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִן הַכּוֹכָבִים, וְזֶהוּ לְשׁוֹן הַבָּטָה מִלְמַעְלָה לְמַטָּה

God brought him forth from the terrestrial sphere, elevating him above the stars, and this is why God uses the term ‘‘look,” when God said “look at the heavens” — for this word signifies looking from above downward.

This gorgeous midrash suggests that God meets Avraham’s fear by allowing him to take leave of his human perspective, and to experience for just a moment the full totality of the universe and its future. Holding this bigger picture—this ‘God’s eye view,’ as my friend and colleague Rabbi Dan Smokler puts it—Avraham is able to have faith: the next verse tells us that “Avraham put his faith in God.”

As the election draws closer, I’ve been doing a lot. I’ve been doing things that I believe will help preserve the integrity of our elections. I’ve been doing things I believe are asked of me as a citizen of the United States to uphold this country’s promise of democracy. I’ve been phone banking with the nonpartisan group Reclaim Our Vote to help ensure that all Americans can act on their right to vote without fear of suppression or intimidation. Together with Roly, Felicia, Ari, Dave and Colin, I’ve joined a bipartisan multifaith coalition to support free and fair elections. Many of us have been doing, and yet uncertainty looms ever larger, and I know I’m not the only one who feels afraid.

And so, I am also trying to fortify my faith, to cultivate emunah—a deeper trust in God. There aren’t too many stars visible here in Manhattan, but I am trying every day to see that Honduran sky in my mind’s eye, to hold on to an image that reminds me of the larger story—a story I do not know, but one I truly believe is being written by the Source of goodness, compassion, and love.

No matter what the outcome of the election, there is a long and unknown road ahead to heal our country. This Shabbat (and on Election Day, as well) join me in taking a break from all the doing, and devote some time to deepening faith, cultivating resilience, and staring at the stars.