The Torah portions from Exodus that we are reading now are filled with signs from God—the sorts of signs that seem to give rise to the very definition of the word “miracle.” As slaves in Egypt, the children of Israel cried out to God in their misery, and God heard them. All the miracles that followed came from that singular, collective outpouring of the human soul.
It may not seem possible for the Sea of Reeds to part for most of us today, but that doesn’t mean that miracles aren’t taking place right now, everywhere, this very minute, and that their signs aren’t all around us. (See a story about signs from Reb Nachman of Breslov that I just stumbled onto on this wonderful Mystic Link blog from Australia.)
While working on my book, Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women, miracles seemed to unfold one after another, beginning with the return of my son, Adam, who had been estranged from me for more than eleven-and-a-half years. As I tell in my preface, finding Fanny Neuda’s book, with it’s prayer “For a Mother Whose Child Is Abroad” was only part of the story. I was also preparing for my father’s 90th birthday when I went to Rosh Hashana services, where Rabbi Emily Feigenson gave a sermon on signs from God. “The sign that it’s time to reach out to someone who has hurt you,” she said, “is a broken heart.” I heard myself sob out loud and knew at that moment that I needed to try to contact him again. I would send him an invitation to his grandfather’s birthday party, something I had deeply wanted to do. Although I had tried and failed to reach out to him in the past, the time was finally right, and this was the sign. Two weeks after I sent him the invitation, he called me on the phone, and the first words I said was, “Adam, I have to tell you. This is the answer to a prayer.”
This formative miracle led to my bringing Fanny Neuda’s prayers back into the world again. Soon after I began editing her beautiful outpourings of the heart, I became aware that I was probably one of the only members of my Song of Songs study group who didn’t observe Shabbat. I felt a nagging desire to do so but wasn’t sure if I really could. As a committed workaholic with a full-time job and a book project to boot, how could I ever give up one whole day to “just rest”? How would I ever get all my work done, run errands, go shopping, and do all the other things that normally filled my Saturdays? And if I did decide to do it, how would I even begin? When I asked my teacher Ronnie Serr this question, he replied simply: “Start by looking forward to Shabbat. The rest will follow.”
So I went out and bought Sabbath candles, challah, and wine, and made sure I had a clean white tablecloth and something to nice to cook for dinner. Although I did it all alone at first, just the acts of shutting down my computer, turning off the stereo, arranging the table, and lighting the candles at the brink of evening brought a sense of peace and relaxation—as if I were taking the sky’s last light and drawing it inward. I would often take my glass of wine and a piece of challah outside, sit in the garden, and watch the last whisper of daylight evaporate from the sky while saying my own personal prayers of thanksgiving.
Yet the Sabbath day still confounded me. What do you do when you’re not working or shopping or going to the movies or a million other things that seemed so un-Shabbatlike? My dog, Buffy, was eager to provide the answer: “Take me for a walk,” she announced with her steady stare and tailwagging smile. Spending time in the beauty of nature seemed like a perfect solution, so off we went to Will Rogers Park in Pacific Palisades.
I was still thinking about the dilemma of what else to do with my “day of rest” as Buffy and I headed up the trail to Inspiration Point. At the end of the first switchback, I saw a corrugated, silver trash can in the distance. Stenciled across the side of the can were five, thick black letters: W-R-S-H-P. Why does that trash can spell “Worship”? I wondered. And then it hit me: of course! That’s what I’m supposed to do on Shabbat—I’m supposed to worship! It took me a minute to realize that the letters were actually the acronym for Will Rogers State Historic Park. But no matter. I had my “sign,” both literally and figuratively. Since then, Shabbat is the day I look foreword to more than any other: a day of celebratory meals with friends and family, and rising on Shabbat morning with hours of study, song, friendship—and, yes, worship(!)—in a welcoming religious community to look forward to.
If I were ever asked if I had personally experienced the miracle of leaving the narrows of Egypt—a place of constriction and fear—I would be humbled by my own answer: It all started with a sign, I’d say, a sob from the depths of my soul.