‘Go toward’ a direction, if not a destination

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 Jewish Light.


Jacob left from Be’er Sheva, went toward Haran, Genesis 28:10.

You’re leaving the seventh well, bye bye Be’er Sheva, going toward or in the direction of — you don’t know where you are going, you know only that you must go. Go toward.

You have a direction, but not a destination. This is called in Hebrew hey ha-m’gamah, the hey of direction, going toward. It’s there in the text, in the holy Torah, one letter that expresses everything I have to say on a variety of subjects.

You’re old enough to be directed, you know what it’s like leaving. And you’re not too old that you know you don’t know where to go, one of the many things you don’t know.

You know only that you must leave. You have a direction, not a destination: a way toward. That’s something.

You will have to be a big person, as the midrash says. A big person leaves a space behind, so you try to be a person who has a direction. You go toward it.

In my last offering, I left off sitting with the individuals of death row asking: What is it that sustains? I am going to pause here in developing the derasha of this piece, I am going to forego making a chidush or trying to draw something new from the text that may or may not be relevant, to shift to something I know is relevant and life challenging and present. Right in front of our faces.

I wonder whether any readers of this piece would disagree with me that we are in the midst of what I would call a mental health crisis, some symptoms being the tragedy of suicides, incidence of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, the inner world when it goes dark. Is our information real? Do we know such people? Are we such people?

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I know them. I think our community could serve them better.

What I am being out loud about is a more reasoned and more creative community effort to turn toward those who suffer more silently in our community, to advocate for those who may not advocate well for themselves. What I am calling for is a total community response to the problems occasioned by mental health, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, suicide, all that between-the-cracks painfulness. 

I think we can do better as a community, so I am invoking the holy Torah and the model of our ancestors to holler at the Jewish Light, the Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the synagogues, the institutions of Jewish life in our town, to work together and create a more deliberate, integrated plan, starting with resources that may (or may not) already be in place.

I think we should be caucusing together as a community to think through the next steps in covering our community with a blanket message that we care and we intend to do more for this kind of suffering in our community. We intend to be more creative and, in so doing, we may become a model for other communities.

I don’t want to waste time in talking people into the notion who are not already committed. The need is too immediate.

Oh, so I asked the guy I was visiting on death row, what sustains? 

He told me you have to be on the road toward something – you know where I’m going, back to Jacob.

Have a goal, he said, go toward it. I stay in the day, he said. That means I prepare for tomorrow. But I try to keep it here, in front of me, I try not to drift too far away and overthink the moment, he said. Now is everything inside here, and to keep my sanity I try to live in the present, he said, preparing for the uncertain future. 

That was his response. It took him some time coming there, but that’s where he arrived. 

I try to go toward, he said.

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 Jewish Light.