This week, our congregation gathered to make a huge and historic decision about our future. We voted to merge with CBE, our sister Reform congregation just up the road a bit. The evening was a powerful mix of storytelling, connecting with one another, dreaming, and honoring a full range of real and authentic emotion. It was a night that vibrated with both what is hard and what is possible, what is hopeful about this current moment in our congregation’s story. With a resolve that reflected an extraordinary amount of inner strength, we formally began our journey toward what is next.
That inner strength was really something. And there was a moment in our meeting when I looked at the faces on the screen in front of me and I thought—and I think I was compelled to say out loud – this is one of the strongest groups of people I have ever known. It was the moment when the votes were in, but we were still calculating and had not called the outcome yet.
That second seemed to go on forever as we waited to exhale with what would become the conclusion we now know. And nearly 60 screens of people were—still. Focused. Steady. And it struck me that this was an extraordinary thing. And it struck me that the inner strength of each person had woven together into a collective strength, rising up. And it struck me that this inner strength was a holy thing and will serve us well on our journey forward.
And I wondered where it comes from and what it is, this inner strength. I think some call it resilience. Some call it courage. But I think maybe there is something more here. This week in Torah, we read parshat Lech L’cha, which is the quintessential story about going on a hard, but purposeful journey. We talked about this text at our meeting—about journeys that leave from one place, from what is familiar, to venture out toward somewhere new, toward something worth journeying for. (Click here for the d’var Torah I offered at our Congregational Voting Meeting)
But we didn’t talk about how we shore ourselves up—where we find the inner strength to weather the road we walk. And that, too, I believe, is found in this parsha.
Two individuals, Avram and Sarai, are tapped for this moment and step forward. Their journey is long and has its hard parts and there are times on their journey where their faith falters. They are promised a future, promised to be the ancestors of a great people, to shape a world. They have gone up against kings and peoples. They have forged new ways where there were not ways before. And now, they grow older and still Sarai has not had a child. How would they ever fulfill God’s promise to become a nation?! They are anxious, afraid, tired.
And then they hear God’s voice speaking to them.
וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵ֥א ע֛וֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ֖ אַבְרָ֑ם וְהָיָ֤ה שִׁמְךָ֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֛י אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ׃
You shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.
Avram’s name becomes Avraham.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־אַבְרָהָם שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא־תִקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ׃
“As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.”
Sarai’s name becomes Sarah.
So what’s actually happening here? And what does a name change have to do with inner strength?
Each of these two leaders, these spiritual ancestors of ours, has the letter “hey” added to their name. Avram becomes Avraham. The hey is in the middle. And Sarai, becomes Sarah, with the hey at the end.
At this moment when they are feeling lost, anxious, maybe most uncertain, when the ground under them feels uneven, when they are having trouble making out where they are going through a fog of the unknown, God gives them a guidepost. Not outside of themselves, but deeply imbedded in them, planting it directly into who they are.
The commentator Rabbeinu Bachya teaches that this “hey” comes from God’s ineffable name, “yud, hey, vav, hey.” The “hey” God places in Avram and Sarai, he teaches, is a bit of God’s essence. A presence of God or godiness or something greater than ourselves. When they are anxious, God places gently in their hearts the deep knowledge that they can do this thing, the profound feeling that they are not alone in this universe, the undeniable sense that there is something More in them than they even knew.
We can imagine all kinds of thing about this letter “hey”—this divine presence they now discover inside of themselves. Inside of ourselves. At a time when they are tired, it is the energy drink that lets them go a little further. At a time when they are walking, or fumbling, through the dark, it is the illuminated lantern in their hand. At a time when they are anxious, it is the breath of calming meditation. At a time when they are overwhelmed, it is the quiet place to which they can retreat to re-find their center, their purpose.
With their names changed, Abraham and Sarah, do indeed find it in themselves to continue their journey. They don’t have any more information than they had before and they are not inherently different people, but something about themselves and what they are capable of has been revealed in them. They’ve found this wellspring of fortitude that they already possessed, but maybe had not been able to access.
I think we saw the waters of that wellspring rise at our congregational vote this week. A blessing, a hey, woven into the names, the heart, of each of those present—centering, calming, energizing, focusing—and illuminating the path ahead. It will serve us so well as we journey now forward to become what it is we are becoming.
And we know, friends, we know. We are walking other anxious paths right now. Still in a pandemic with an unknown trajectory. And of course, our nation is voting right now. We are in the midst of the most contentious, anxiety producing elections probably of most of our lifetimes. I think many of us are anxious about the outcomes of local, state, and national elections. I think we are anxious about how those outcomes will be received and reacted to throughout our country. We might feel afraid or upset or discouraged as we look down the road to even just a week from now.
So what shall we do? We are not a people who turn back from a journey. We are a people who continue forward no matter how hard it is.
So in these moments, we turn to our tradition. We have this “hey” in us, too. As it is in our spiritual progenitors, it is in us, this point of light that gives us strength beyond what we thought, and calm beyond what we knew. It is a seed planted also in us. It is not something we have to remember to pack or make sure we don’t lose. It is only something we have to remember we can rely on. Remember we can unleash like a time release capsule of a holy energy that allows us to make our way forward more surefooted, more focused, more ready, less alone. The “hey,” the quiet place that sooths and uplifts us, is our inheritance, too.
It is ours as we face a new chapter for Union Temple. It is ours as we face a new chapter in our country. It is ours as we digest news that may raise our blood pressures. It is ours as we work to stay steady in the face of the unknown or confusing. It is ours as we vote. It is ours as we reach toward others who might appreciate a hand to hold as they walk, too.
Where do you find this hey of blessing? Is it in your heart? Your very soul? In your name? In your step? Your hands? Is it in your voice? It is in you as it is in me, as it is in all the faces we see here and the ones we don’t.
May we feel ourselves blessed, at our moments of greatest anxiety or concern or unsureness, may we feel the tingle of this bit of divine presence implanted in us, for just such a moment as this.