I am writing this as I am finishing my last essays for this academic year at Leo Baeck College. One of them concerns God’s call to the first man in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3: 9, ‘Ayekha, where are you?’
This question has puzzled the rabbis, because, as some argue, God knows everything and thus knows very well where the man is. So, just to make sure that no one thinks otherwise, they amend God’s speech. The new version starts by making explicit that all is revealed before God, light and darkness and all of creation. Only then comes the question, also amended.
Other rabbis make a connection between God’s question in this verse (ayeka) and the first word of Lamentations (eicha, how), as these words are spelled the same without vowels in Hebrew (aleph-yud-kaf/chaf–hey). God’s question is understood as reproof or lamentation. Again, God knows very well what has happened and has already condemned it.
Yet others consider God’s question a model for good manners. When entering, or interestingly also when leaving someone’s house, one should always ask for permission it is argued, just as God called out to the first man. Never just enter or get up and leave.
I find myself most of all intrigued by more contemporary readings, especially by those who are inspired by Martin Buber’s, The Way of Man, According to the Teachings of the Hasidim. Now the question becomes more genuine and is asked not just of human beings, but also of God. The Dutch rabbi Avraham Soetendorp puts it thus: ‘… the critical dialogue between God and humans never ends. God calls, ‘Ayeka, where are you, human being?’ The human being calls to God: ‘Ayeka, where are you, God?’ In the original Dutch, this conversation feels very intimate, as they address each other with the informal ‘you’.
‘Where are you?’ is a question to ask oneself from time to time. More than a year has passed since we last had to move services online because of Covid, and in some ways, things seem to have gone back to how they were. Yet the consequences of the disease and the protective and preventive measures are still with us. For some of us, it may seem as if we have not had a break for years. Others are struggling with the social consequences or with mental health issues. I hope that this summer will allow us all some time to sit and reflect and ask ourselves, not in a judgmental way, but as a genuine enquiry, where am I and where are we?
I wish you all a very good summer. I shall be in Israel from 21 June to 6 August. I can be contacted there via my usual e-mail address and we can always find a way to talk. In August, I am taking some weeks off (6-28 August) and then I’ll be back in Norwich on the first of September for Selichot.