There is a Talmudic story about a day when the weather was really bad, and the men of the Sanhedrin decided to not go to the great Hall of Assembly. In other words, it was raining and no one wanted to schlep to work.
But a group of children did, and they decided to pretend that they were the sages. They spent the day playing adult and making rulings. It’s what all children do.
There are times when I wonder if playing at being a grown-up is what we adults also are doing. There is a new verb that people in their 20s have coined: they call it Adulting. Doing things like paying the rent and bills on time, and not staying out until two in the morning.
And us older adults? I think that often we too feel that we are making it up as we go along. We find ourselves dealing with new situations, or ones that we watched our elders handle in ways that we don’t wish to emulate. And sometimes we feel too close to a problem to be able to handle it properly.
I am a great admirer of the expressionist artists, and I am especially fascinated by George Seurat and the pointillists. Their paintings are meant to be viewed from a distance. From close up, they appear to be a mass of colored dots. But as you move away, step by step, the pictures come into focus. The dots begin to flow together, and images emerge.
I so admire the ability to have a vision, and execute it in such a way that during the execution, the vision itself cannot be seen.
And it seems to me that this is a fitting metaphor for our own lives. Our personal histories are made up of moments, thoughts, actions, and individual experiences, collections of dots. At the time that we are creating the painting of our lives, we add each experience, each individual dot of color.
As much as we think we’re in control, we learn again and again that we are not. We don’t know what the painting will look like. It is only after years and decades that we can look back and see the progress of the masterpiece that we have created.
Whether we like what we’ve painted or not, it is what it is. We don’t get a do-over, we can’t begin again with fresh thoughts, actions, and experiences, although sometimes we wish we could.
We see time as cyclical, moving through the seasons one after the other and then back again, but we seem to be trapped in a forward motion, never able to actually go back. We may have regrets, but we don’t get to start over again.
Or do we? When Moses saw the burning bush and turned aside, he was 80 years old. He began a conversation with God about what was going to happen next, in both his personal history and the history of his people. Because he displayed some skepticism about God, God kept having to introduce Godself, using a variety of names.
The name that we pay closest attention to in this part of the Torah, is the one that is heard neither before nor after, ehyeh asher ehyeh. It’s incredibly hard to translate. It might mean, “I am what I am becoming,” or perhaps “I will be that which I will be.”
While it can be understood in more than one way, the phrase only works in the future and present tense, not in the past tense.
Not that the past is forgotten. In the space of 10 verses in chapter three of Exodus, God declares three times “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Not “I was,“ but “I am.”
We each are the sum of the points that we have painted on our own canvases. As we age, we see them coming together, coming into focus, creating a portrait of ourselves. And yet I don’t say, “I was Jennifer.” I say “ I am Jennifer.”
I am the person who I have created throughout my lifetime, mistakes and all.
As I look at the painting I have created, I see the hands of others; teachers, mentors, friends, my children, even people who were negative influences on my life.
And as I look at the painting, I can see God‘s presence in key moments. Not as a fellow painter, nor as a teacher steering my choices in one direction or another. But rather as a presence. Something that I do not understand and yet have become willing to accept.
The name that God declares to Moses is one that we each can apply to ourselves. I am the product of everything that has gone before, and I am so much more; “I am that which I am becoming.” As are we all.
This is the sermon that I gave at Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.