D’var Torah by Rabbi James Stone Goodman: I give you my soul

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Before Exodus 2:24-25 (G*d heard their cry. . .and G*d saw”), there is little mention of G*d in the first few chapters of the Book of Exodus. G*d was not personally involved (hashgacha pratit in Hebrew) with Israel, as it were, but allowed events to take their natural course. This is how Samson Raphael Hirsch read the text, a nineteenth century rabbi who lived in Germany. There is an emptiness at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

There is an emptiness in our story these days. These are difficult years, these pandemic years, we are staring into a well of uncertainty, unformed and empty, trauma, feel it? Trauma is the clue-word these days.

We are responding to the mental health pandemic through two efforts we convene: Shalvah on addictions, and Shande Means Shame (there is none) on mental health. Both groups are running on all cylinders, we meet by Zoom three times a week, because we need to. Unusual times call for extraordinary measures. We have dug deep in the past, we dig deeper now.

What moves G*d to re-engage with us in a personal way at the beginning of the book of Exodus?

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G*d is moved to act by Moses’ model. Moses turns away from his life, from his complacency. He gets involved, he rights what he perceives as a wrong.

Moses gives himself away. We call this mesirat nefesh, giving away his soul. Selfess, he leaves himself with – nothing. His whole life turns in that moment of re-engagement. He turns away from self. Only then does G*d hear our cry and is moved to act, re-enters the story.

I imagine the thought rising in the mind of G*d, so to speak, I am moved by this act of Moses, because you turned aside from your life, shared in the suffering like blood like bones, I will leave the ones above and the ones below – I will be with you.

I have returned to the story, it’s the sound that draws me back, I heard the groaning and remembered and I knew your hurt, we are saving each other, it rose in the mind of G*d this way I am imagining. What follows will be extraordinary measures.

We are saving each other with nothing, giving up our separate souls, handing over our separate selves. What do I have to give over? I imagine Moses asking just before he inspires G*d’s return to our story. I have a shadow of smoke, not sure what it is this thing called my soul, but it is deep and enduring. I give it, it’s not flesh not bone it’s nothing like that. It’s the nothing that everybody craves. What separates us now? Nothing. What connects us? Also nothing.

We think we want this, need that, what we want what we need is nothing. It’s more like soul, here it is I am giving it over. What is it? Nothing. We think of self as the solution; self may be the problem.

We engage three times a week on screens to give ourselves away to each other, saving ourselves with – nothing. Soul.

Here, towards the beginning of our story, G*d instructs us: I am moved by you. I imagine G*d saying to Moses, you give over yourself, you give it all away, saving yourself and each other with a great nothing. We think on our best days we are imitating G*d, here at the beginning of this chapter in our story, it’s G*d imitating us.

Here, G*d says, is nothing, the very thing everybody needs.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Central Reform Congregation and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.