Like everyone else, I’ve had change on my mind lately. We got through the election and now it looks like we’ll get through covid, and later next year we hope to be able to get back to some semblance of a normal life.
Some changes happen so quickly they leave our heads spinning. Others take time. Often, too much time. We’ve been living with covid for the better part of a year, and while we’ve adapted to the situation, we’d all really rather that it end. Right now.
But for now, we’re living in a liminal space. The word liminal comes from the Latin word that means threshold. It’s a good word for this moment – a time between this and that, when something has been left behind and the next thing hasn’t happened yet. It’s both a transitional time and space.
The 17th century French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
It’s a great quote. The only problem is that the waiting can be difficult. We want to know. We want to know when we can hug each other, when we can pray together in the same room, when we can travel, when we can see our families, when we can throw away the masks and gloves and just be ourselves.
It’s tantalizingly close. Although, as much as I’m an optimist, I don’t think it will happen before late summer, if then. But my crystal ball has a big crack down the middle, and I really have no clue.
Back to liminal space and time. For a butterfly, a chrysalis is a liminal space. Between its life as a caterpillar and its very different life as a butterfly, it has a waiting period. A between time.
We can rage against the liminal times in our lives, or we can use them. It is an invitation to surrender – to give in to something larger than ourselves and trust that we will be able to navigate the in-between times.
I read an article about liminality by author Alan Seale, who said, “Transformation happens when we are not in charge. It can’t happen when we are holding on to control. Sometimes we need to be shaken loose from our foundations in order to be open for something better. This is the space where a new reality can be born.” And he added that occasionally landing in a liminal space “is essential for our own transformation and evolution.”
This was certainly true for our patriarch Jacob. He embarked on a journey to find a bride, a journey of escape from an angry brother and feuding parents. On his way he dreamt of a ladder reaching the sky, with angels going up and down. When reached his destination he dwelled there for 14 years, acquiring two brides, a manipulative father-in-law, two concubines, 12 children, and great wealth.
But it wasn’t until his journey back home in this week’s Torah portion that he was transformed. In case you don’t remember the story, he was heading back to his parents’ home with the entire mishpacha in tow, and received word that his brother Esau was coming to meet him, along with 400 men.
Jacob goes into panic mode – he’d stolen his brother’s birthright and blessing from their father, and in the past Esau had threatened to kill him.
He sends his family off to safety in separate groups, each mother with her children, and finds himself alone in the dark once again, just as he had been at the beginning of the journey. A man – or was it an angel? – wrestles with him through the night, and as dawn breaks and the man dislocates Jacob’s hip, he asks for a blessing before letting the stranger go.
But instead of an outright blessing, the stranger asks his name, and then says, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29).
The struggle tests and changes Jacob, both spiritually and physically. For the rest of his life, he limps on the injured leg. And for the rest of his life he will carry two names, one that means “heel” because he was born holding onto his twin’s foot, and the other meaning “God wrestler.”
But there’s something else about his name that stands out. The last time we heard him ask for a blessing it was when he was deceiving his father Isaac, who asked, “Who are you?” Jacob lied and said his name was Esau. This time he told the truth. Only when he was prepared to be truthful was he able to receive the blessing of a new name.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once wrote, “Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum.”
Jacob/Israel had to discover that about himself. He freed himself from his past, from his family, from his chrysalis stage of the 14 years working for his father-in-law. He learned that his true name had to be earned. He learned that revealing his inner self as he wrestled through the night was painful but worthwhile.
We are living in a liminal time. It’s not easy, and we don’t know when it will end. But we do know something, something that is as important as the experience itself: We, each one of us, is valuable. Important. Necessary.
The fact that millions of people have been sickened by this disease, that more than 280,000 have died in this nation, is shameful. It is something we will have to deal with long after the pandemic is over. It is something we will have to learn from, something we cannot allow to happen again.
Like Jacob, we have been tested, physically and spiritually. We have been shaken from our foundations. May we be blessed to use this liminal time to transform ourselves into something new, into a country and a community that is better than we were.