Today is November 20, 2019 -
Do you remember the play The Miracle Worker? It was made into a movie in 1962 and was about the story of Anne Sullivan’s struggle to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate.
Can you imagine the frustration of this poor blind and deaf girl to understand the world around her? How would she have known that all others were not like her (or even that the world was filled with “others”)? She lived her life in silent darkness – touching and being touched by the world through her hands (sense of touch), along with the senses of taste and smell. But no language. No concept of space. No concept of society or family.
And can you imagine the frustration of her parents? They could feed her and dress her, but they could have no meaningful relationship with her.
What was the “miracle” of The Miracle Worker?
The miracle was that Anne Sullivan was able to discover a point of communication with Helen Keller. She was able to find a way to convey ideas to Helen and for Helen to respond to her with her own ideas.
And that was a miracle. It was always there. Anne Sullivan did not split the sea or make the sun stand still. She had the insight to dis-cover a pathway that already existed, but which had been overlooked: Helen’s hands and her sense of touch.
When Helen Keller was asked many years later which she would prefer: to see or to hear, her response was: to hear. Blindness separates you from things. Deafness separates you from people. Attraction may be a function of the eyes, but relationship is a function of the ears.
I don’t think much about whether Anne Sullivan – the miracle worker – was like God, another miracle worker. But I do wonder sometimes if God was like Anne Sullivan. Did God realize that He was in an entirely different reality that humans? Outside of time and space, timeless and limitless. And His creation was placed into time and space, only able to understand its reality relative to the dimensions of time and space. Relative to God, human beings are all Helen Keller. We can feel the created world around us, but have no way to directly sense the presence of God, with any of our five senses.
Like Anne Sullivan, God’s miracle was that He found a way to create a bridge between two realities. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote God in Search of Man – God’s first question to Adam is Ayeka – “Where are you?” And ever since, man has responded, Ayeka – “Where are You???”
God’s bridge to humanity is found on the first day of Creation – the creation of language (“God called the light day and the darkness He called night”). And the first thing that Adam does is to name the animals. God has language. We have language.
The experience at Sinai was one of revelation – ma’amad har Sinai – standing at Sinai, hearing the word of God.
This was the beginning of a great timeless conversation between humanity and God. It was the beginning of relationship between us and God. For more than three thousand years, in each generation, and in each place that we have lived, we have tried to hear God’s voice, both in its sacred reverberations of the original communication and also in the still, small voice, most often drowned out by the din of popular culture, the din of daily living, the din of pain and poverty and anger and loss.
We wonder – we who are like Helen Keller – are there others who sense God’s words in ways that are impossible for us? Are we trapped forever in our sensory disability, in a world of non-sense?
Our ability to be in relationship with God is the fundamental miracle of our existence. Without that miracle of relationship, in which we become aware of the Other, no other miracle is “miracle” – it is just an accidental random event in the infinite chaos of our impersonal Universe.
Why is this book we began reading this week called Devarim? = “Words” or “things.” Words are the stuff of relationship. They are the core of our relationship with God. God’s words, Moses’ words, Rashi’s words, Rambam’s words, Heschel’s words, your words. Through our worship, we trust that God can hear and understand our words. Through our sacred texts, we hear God’s original words. But God’s relationship with us did not start and stop 3,200 years ago. That relationship continues. As the Psalm for Tuesday states, Lo yad’u u’lo yavinu, ba-chasheikha yit’halakhu yimotu kol mosdei aretz – “Bur they neither know nor understand; they wander about in darkness while the earth’s foundations are shaken.” When we are unable or unwilling to engage in that continuing relationship, we are as those who wander about in darkness – we fail to understand the obligations that come with the relationship, and thus fail to “Champion the weak and the orphan; uphold the downtrodden and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; save them from the grip of the wicked.”
It is the same with each of our relationships: they are created, maintained, nurtured, developed through our words. Or lack thereof.
The ability to connect with another human beings through words (complex vibrations transmitted through the air from voicebox to eardrum) – now that is indeed a miracle, one that we generally take for granted. And the ability feel connection with God is a similar miracle, hearing that commanding Voice, responding with our own challenges, engaging seriously with each other. Sharing the miracle of life through the miracle of language.
We observe Tisha B’Av this evening, a commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. The First was destroyed, the Rabbis teach, because of idolatry – the failure to hear the One God’s Voice. The second was destroyed through sinat chinam – baseless hatred – the failure to hear the voices of those around us.
Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword. May we use the miracle of language to deepen and strengthen our relationships with those we love and with God.