This past weekend I attended my synagogue's biannual Women's Retreat. I was on the planning committee, I led all the music for services and I delivered the "drash" or sermon at Saturday morning's Shabbat service. It was a heartfelt weekend. The community we build at these retreats sends ripples out in my life. I will write more about the experience in a future blog post, but for now, here's my drash. The theme for the weekend was "liminal moments" and the Torah portion for the week was Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:32).
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“And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
~ T.S. Eliot
Last weekend I celebrated my 50th birthday. If you’ve already hit 50 then you know how it feels to get there. If you haven’t, then you may think it sounds terribly old…I will say that, at least for me, there is something about it, something different. I felt that difference as my past year unfolded. It was as if the whole year preceding that 50th birthday was a kind of preparation. The many moments of introspection, of new perspectives, of fog clearing away (and believe me, as a women in menopause, the fog clearing away is no mean feat)…all of these seem to have led me to that day and then ushered me into this place I am now: the beginning of the next half century of my life!
The Torah marks the 50th year as a Jubilee year. “…and you shall hallow the fiftieth year,” it says in Leviticus. “That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth direct from the field.”
The 50th anniversary is a golden anniversary and coming into last weekend’s celebrations for me, felt like a golden time, a golden moment. A liminal moment.
The concept of a liminal moment is popular in anthropology. Liminal moments can take many forms, but in general they are thresholds, thresholds for individuals, groups, entire civilizations. These moments can take place in a breath, an hour, a day or an epoch. Twilight is a liminal moment of time that comes every day, being born is a liminal moment that comes only once in each person’s life. A war is liminal for a country, or many, an “aha” moment is liminal for an individual who has just seen the light.
Rites of passage are liminal moments, as they mark the end of one period and the beginning of the next. We, in Judaism, have many and I’ve long felt that we are quite fortunate to be a people who still values the power of a ritual or a rite of passage to mark the various milestones in life, most importantly the bar/bat mitzvah, which marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, something that is lost to our general assimilated modern society but which is so wise and can be so profound. Havdalah is also a liminal rite, and quite meaningful in a world that has blurred the lines between the sacred and the secular.
I had never heard the term “liminal moment” before Rabbi Kramer brought it up at a Women’s Retreat Committee meeting last spring. I had never heard of it, but I had studied it for years. I am fascinated by liminal moments. I am quite interested in that period of “in between” that exists during transitions, a time that might stretch for months or years, with no apparent end in sight. Perhaps I am intrigued by these because I’ve encountered them so often in life and found the living through them to be so excruciating. Being in the moment when the moment is agonizingly painful, confusing, frightening, hopeful, electrifying, full of possibility, or even boring is an immense challenge. Changes seem to occur at these crossroads creating whole new paradigms in our lives. Imagining all the possibilities as we await the threshold-crossing-moment is oh-so-difficult. The unknown is a hard companion to sit with.
How was it then, for our hero Noah, the focus of our Torah portion this week? How did he manage to be within that twilight space…after the edict to build the ark, to collect the animals, to call together his sons and their wives… after the 40 days and nights of rain…after all that but before the next phase had begun? How did he manage to sit with the unknown?
“The ark drifted upon the waters” the Torah tells us. The entire earth was covered with water. As far as the eye could see. And “[o]nly Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.”
Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
How quiet was it?
All the turmoil that had come before, wiped out, obliterated by an extremely powerful and fed up God, fed up with the sins of mankind, but who chose to save one righteous individual, Noah, and his family. All that chaos that came before: GONE.
And then the water and the quiet. And the waiting.
I’m not talking about what the Lord said to Noah. I’m not talking about the floody-floody. Or the muddy muddy. I’m talking about the period in between when it was months and months of waiting for the storm to calm and the waters to recede.
Noah must have experienced that liminal moment as a man, a husband and a father, but also he experienced it for all humankind, did he not? He was our representative on Earth, living in that twilight moment, waiting to find out what comes after God’s mighty meltdown.
William Bridges, says in his book Making Sense of Transitions, that transitions involve 3 phases:
1) an ending, followed by
2) a period of confusion and distress, leading to
3) a new beginning
If, in the first phase, you don’t acknowledge the ending, says Bridges, you can’t move forward toward a new beginning. A transition, then, is a very special thing. It begins with an ending.
Reading this on the tail of the first stories of Creation, we might think of Noah’s story as the “end of the beginning.”
The end of the beginning.
Bridges also says, “We have to let go of the old thing before we pick up the new—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections with the people and places that act as definitions of who we are.”
Did Noah, looking back at the chaos from whence he came, did he think of it in that way? Did he take store of humankind’s sins and consider how he and his offspring would move forward to create a better world? Or, did he suffer in the silence, anxious about whether or not God would truly spare him after all this, the ark, the cubits, and the animals two by two? All the definitions Noah had were gone.
“The ark drifted on the waters” of what we might think of as a Neutral Zone, a place with no place and no time and no definitions.
As Noah and his crew floated out there, somewhere (who knows where?), they embodied that Neutral Zone for all humanity. It’s Phase 2 of Bridges’ transition triumvirate, “…a strange no-man’s land between one world and the next…,” “…a low pressure area…a vacuum left by the loss…” During this period of waiting, this confusing and disorienting time, what did Noah think about? How did he feel? Was he afraid? Was he lonely?
In her book The Beginning of Desire:Reflections on Genesis, Scottish contemporary Torah scholar Avivah Gottleib Zornberg says that [in Noah] “…for the first time we are given a sense of human loneliness, as time is endured, as Noah waits for something new to begin…” and that Noah “prays to be saved from the prison of the his ark.”
“Noah,” she says, “like every faithful man,” prays to be saved from the “rushing mighty waters” [shetef mayim rabbim]; the undifferentiated dumb violence of the world just outside the prison of the ark. The prison is both the closed space of the ark and the too-great openness of the wild raging silence beyond.”
Just about seven years ago my family embarked on an odyssey when our middle son, Ben, then just 8 years old, was diagnosed with Chiari malformation type I. At his eight year well doctor’s visit he bent over for the scoliosis check and the sight of a huge lump (actually a hump) on his back caused me to literally leap up out of my chair. What came next were x-rays and MRI’s, urgent doctors appointments, calls and emails to everyone we knew for information about hospitals and neurosurgeons. Less than two months later we were sitting in the cafeteria at Children’s Hospital, Oakland while he underwent brain surgery for 10 hours.
What I didn’t know then was that that was the end of the beginning. We were entering a very long period of transition, one we still inhabit.
Those first months as we moved to the head of the class finding out more than you would ever want to know about brain surgery and cerebellar tonsils, those first months were only the tip of the iceberg of our period “floating on the waters.” What was supposed to be a veritable “walk in the park” by neurosurgery standards became two months at his ICU bedside watching the doctors scratch their chins in puzzlement as he would not heal and would not heal...and would.not.heal. He endured four surgeries in those two months, though he was only supposed to have the one. He endured many more painful and frightening procedures during that time: needle pokes and blood draws, huge sticky bandages pulled off (quickly or slowly, it did not matter), stitches made without anesthesia. And I stood by, blowing cool air on his face, holding his soft little hand in mine, guiding his mind with images of Hawaiian beaches to calm him or superheroes to give him strength, organizing poker games for him with his loving uncles and dad, urging him to smile with ridiculously inappropriate TV and movies. It was a period of twilight for me, and I would agree with William Bridges’ assertion that time slows down in that zone.
What I didn’t know then was that because of the Chiari and the fluid pocket that had formed in his spinal cord, his spinal nerves had been compromised and the scoliosis he was left with would be severe. And require more surgeries.
Today, we still drift in those waters. They have not cleared as yet. In about three weeks Ben will head to Philadelphia with my husband, Mark, to have his 11th surgery, at Shriners Hospital for Children. He has been getting treatment there for the past three years, treatments that have held off spinal fusion and allowed his spine to continue to grow, but that have required him to spend more time in the hospital, more painful procedures, more time away from home. Within his back he has a 17 inch titanium rod and 5 staples. We have no idea when all this will end, or what it will end with.
Last summer, as we were approaching his 9th surgery I felt somehow that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was so drained, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually from the never-endingness of it all. Ben was drained too, and that of course was HUGE for me. Ben was suffering from bouts of depression and anger and his constant back aches caused my own back to ache and my heart to ache, as well.
But, last summer I was standing out by my pasture, breathing in the cool morning air and I was perseverating on it all. When would it end? What would happen to Ben? Where had my happy, healthy boy gone? What was it like to not be constantly worrying about a sick child? I was finding it incredibly hard to just be with my life, sit with the unknown. And then it hit me: This is your life. Be in it. Be in it right now.
That “aha” moment, or as I like to think of it, My Moment of Zen, really helped. It helped me accept the truth and to live in it with not only the courage to deal with it, but the courage to see that the only thing that I could do was stay in the present moment and accept it. The past needed to be let go. The future was on the other side of the threshold.
I believe it’s quite necessary to survive the liminal moments that feel like an eternity. I believe it’s important to look to the future, to imagine what will be. But I also believe that it requires great courage to stay with the pain and the fear and the racing heart in the moment, the moment that may be dark or foggy or so terribly unclear. It is within those moments that we have the potential to uncover the truth about who we are, what we are made of, and possibly even why we are there.
And then, there are times when we don’t find out the whys until long after the transition is past. Looking back on events in our lives is when we can count the blessings or see what we learned from that very taxing teacher.
And so, what about Phase 3? The new beginning? What about after the floods receded and Noah threw open the doors of the ark to let the sun shine in? What then?
I can imagine that it was not easy to take the next step, down the gangplank, to the damp soil of Mt. Ararat. The Torah says “God spoke to Noah, saying, "Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons' wives. Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth." It might have been an obvious direction. But, perhaps, God noticed Noah’s hesitation. After all that waiting, after all that time spent on the waters, walking through that doorway might not have been anything short of Noah’s most courageous move.
According to Aviva Gottleib Zornberg, “What Noah experiences when he is released, is the subtle gratitude of one who now realizes the implications of where he was and where he is. The history of Noah is, then, the history of man’s first exercise in self-construction. Between the worlds of kindness and ecstasy, between closedness and openness," she says, "Noah reads and interprets the test of God’s words and of his own heart.”
“We come to beginnings only at the end,” William Bridges tells us, “…changed and renewed by the destruction of the old life-phase and the journey through the nowhere.”
Have you ever walked from one room to another, on an errand to pick up something but by the time you got there you had no idea what you had come for? Did you know that psychology researchers have a name for that? It’s called “the doorway effect” and what they have found is that walking through a doorway causes you to have a lapse in short-term memory. According to the Scientific American, “walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you have changed venues.”
And we have learned that liminal moments also seem to involve that same loss of memory, or what could be seen as a death. One definition I found said: “a liminal moment involves a metaphorical ‘death’, as the initiand is forced to leave something behind by breaking with previous practices and routines.”
We can view our lives as a linear series of chronological events and as circular, beginning leading to in-between leading to ending leading to in-between leading to beginning again. The seasons of the year are this, the cycle of water from particles in the atmosphere to rain to raging waters of a river to the vapors over the ocean are this as well. The holiday of Simchat Torah is a ritual we Jews have to acknowledge the cyclical journey we take through the lessons of the Torah every year, unrolling and rolling, reading, singing and dancing our love for the book we cherish.
Noah’s time spent drifting upon the waters came to an end with a beginning, a new beginning for humanity. After many, many months drifting there in that no-time-no-place the waters finally drew back, the land finally dried out and marching off the ark they all came, to begin again.
Today at 50, I am all that I was before I arrived here at this new phase in my life. I am the consummation of my experiences, the thresholds I have crossed, the pain I have felt, the mistakes I have made and the joy I have shared. The course of my life has meandered along like a river’s course and I can sit with the events the way they have unfolded, knowing that they have brought me to where I am today. No regrets, just gratitude.
In his book The Way of Transition, William Bridges says, “You can talk about transition in either context. In the linear context, it’s the segue between one life-segment and the next, as well as being the process that disengages us from the first phase, turns us around, and plugs us into the second phase. In the circular-journey context, transition is an analytical way of talking about the journey itself.”
I suppose that’s the key for me: the journey. I have always been less interested in the destination than I have been in the journey. My personal journey, Noah’s journey, the journey of humankind.