“Where are you?” AYEKA. This is the first question Torah puts in the mouth of God. I often ask “Where are you?” as an opening question for our online chat: where are you Zooming in from? This “where are you” is physical; it is the “come out, come out, where ever you are” at the end of a game of hide-and-seek. Even internally, you might inquire and try to answer “where am I” within the geography of the body? As a form of Vipassana, or insight meditation, you might ask, am “I” somewhere behind my eyes? Do “I” reside in my heart or deep within the belly? Am I my whole body or do I extend beyond? Am I embedded in my relationships and identity — as a child, a parent, a partner, a teacher, a student? Perhaps, at the very limits of imagination and cognition, I am all that which I experience?

AYEKA can be spatial or temporal. “Where are you” is also a procedural question; where are you in the process of becoming? This “Where are you?” asks, How are the kids? How are they doing in school? How is the job search coming along? How have the treatments been? Have you found the right specialist? Are you getting enough support? Have you found a good therapist? What does this year’s Yahrzeit feel like? “Where are you?” in time asks us to take the measure of beginnings, middles, and endings. 

We sometimes ask “where are you” when someone checks out of a conversation. Evolved to be able to exquisitely attune to micro-gestures — small muscular movements around the eyes, slight adjustments of body posture, quaking or quivering in the voice — we sometimes intuitively know when our conversation partners have made a quantum leap into ancient memories, towards fantasies of the future, or plunge into cold dissociation. “Where are you” is a lasso attempting to attach horse to rider; a request for engagement; a bridge to intimacy. Sometimes hearing the question wakes us up — oh, sorry, I’m here now. Other times the question echoes across the chasm: stillness or a shallow response seems to silently shout “I don’t know where I am…”

AYEKA, “Where are you” has a moral valence. Also in this Parsha, a question for the ages: are you not your sibling’s keeper? This ethic is powerfully encapsulated in Martin Niemoller’s famous short poem:

First, they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

“Where are you?” asks us to speak up. This is the social component of AYEKA; a question that can only live in relationship. AYEKA summons subjectivity, conjures conversation. The question itself is a thermodynamic law; an energy of inquiry forever in motion. It is the wisdom motivating the idiom “never exchange a good question for an answer.” The call of AYEKA echoes from the beginning of beginning, throughout time and space, and within every soul. 

We are back at the beginning, at a beginning, BERESHEIT. I can get irritated when the Torah is called the Old Testament. It reeks of an antisemitic doctrine known as supersessionism; the New Testament is explicit in a few places — this new version makes that old one obsolete; please delete previous versions of your software, they’re no longer supported. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging the Gospels; the beautiful Torah of Jesus is in some ways less obscure, more universalistic, and easier to digest than the Hebrew Bible. But even the so-called Hebrew Bible isn’t Torah. The Torah isn’t even Torah! Torah is a process, always asking the question: where are you. It is a mirror on the surface of the river that you can never step into twice. We can’t even breathe into the same body twice. Just give it a try… we are always back at a beginning.

Written Torah with its black fire is given before our eyes. Oral Torah with its white fire is spoken into and through our hearts, to whatever extent we are able to listen to its voice and receive its transmission. TOREI ZAHAV, the golden ornaments of the letters of the scroll, is studded with NIKUDOT HAKASEF, the silver vowel-breaths of our inspired learning and aspirational yearning.

We are at a beginning, BERESHEIT. We receive an aural tradition that the first word is not pronounced BAREISHIT, in the beginning (as it is often mistranslated), rather, BERESHEIT, in a beginning. This is but one of many cosmologies, but one of myriad tellings, but one of infinite beginnings. In this beginning, at this moment — where are you? Where do you begin; what is your origin story? It is this openness that engenders intimacy.

The Seven Days of Creation are arrayed in a sequence; first, there was Light; then heavens above and earth below; then soil and plants; followed by sun, moon, and stars; fish and fowl; finally the land animals and ultimately, humans. These Days of Creation are often read one stacked upon the other, humans in their hubris placing themselves at the top of the totem pole. Like a precarious Tower of Babel, when we become disconnected and isolated, no longer able to hear the call or respond to this basic question — Where are you in relation to all of your relations... — the tower topples. Our rigid top brick falls furthest from its base, we are thrown farthest from our Foundation. 

But whats stays stable, rooted? VAYEHI OR. “Let there be light” is the first proclamation of creation. Let there be awareness of awareness… KI TOV, KI TOV, KI TOV… it was good, this was good, that was good, ontologically the Torah’s story tells us: Creation was GOOD! But what is the first LO TOV, the first “not good” in creation? LO TOV LEHIYOT ADAM LEVADO. “It is not good for people to be alone.” In A Beginning, it was not good for God to be alone and so BERESHEIT BARA ELOHIM… God made a multiplicity out of unity. God made a BET on being right here — PO. (טוב = פ׳)

As we begin again, another New Year, another Shemita year, another reading cycle, another Shabbat, another breath: can you live into the koan of the question AYEKA/Where Are You — without forcing an answer or demanding resolution? How can we — realistically, programmatically, practically — remember to stay awake to this question? A master like the Baal Shem Tov had the clarity of vision to say “you are where your thoughts are.” In Polynesian Huna philosophy this is known as MAKIA, or the principle “energy goes where attention flows.”

Sam Harris offers the powerful meditation: “Take a moment to think about all the things in this life that you will experience for the last time. When was the last time you swam in the ocean? Or went camping? When was the last time you took a walk, just to take a walk? As you go about your day... consider everything you're doing is like this. Everything represents a finite opportunity to savor your life.” Sam continues that there will be a last time we do everything, including being able to take in this moment — through our eyes, our ears, to take through our mouths a breath. To take in this love. Do not take this love for granted.

And this moment, in its wild, rawest form, is a beginning. L’EYNEI KOL YISRAEL, before our very eyes, this moment, this heart: a new cosmos being born. “Let there be light.”

Shir Yaakov Feit

About

Shir Yaakov is Kol Hai's founder and spiritual director.