Earlier this week I had a thought that has stayed with me. It puts the journey we have been through over the past year, the loss, pain and sometimes trauma we have encountered
in a new light. And it hinges on the concept of liminal moments. A liminal moment is a moment or an encounter that separates life experiences.
We all have such moments in our lives.
Opening the letter accepting me into rabbinic school was a liminal moment. My life was different after opening the letter than it was before.
Standing beneath our chuppah and reciting the words “Harei At… be consecrated to me…” to Raina was a liminal moment. That experience dramatically changed both of our lives.
In fact, if we look at the various rituals that are part of Jewish life, we quickly see that each focuses on a liminal moment in the life of an individual or a family. Our rituals give voice to the power of those moments and then frame them in the context of our people’s history and values. The words and traditions we bring to those moments elevate and sanctify them. As this week’s Torah portion notes, “You shall be holy for I, Adonai Your God am Holy.” We are, as a Jewish community, in the business of sanctifying liminal moments.
We have such moments in our national life as well. They aren’t frequent, but when they happen, they are powerful.
For those a bit older than me, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a liminal moment. It changed the country.
And for all of us born prior to 2001, the attacks of 9/11 were a liminal moment, as well. Those attacks changed our country and our world.
But here is the thing. Most of the time, liminal moments are infrequent. That’s a good thing since liminal moments, whether positive or negative, create upheaval and uncertainty. They break old norms and force us to reinvent ourselves, or at least evolve, as individuals or as a nation. We need time for things to settle after a period of rapid upheaval and transition.
So what do we do when those liminal moments happen one after the other in rapid succession? How do we deal with the upheaval of such change? And how do we do everything possible to make sure that whatever changes occur advance our values and our commitment to equity and justice?
That is not a hypothetical question. Because I realized this week that, as a nation, we have encountered one liminal moment after the other over the course of the past year.
Regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, the November election was a liminal moment. That election represented a crossroad for our country and either outcome would have transformed our nation.
The Capitol insurrection on January 6th was a liminal moment, as well. We watched it unfold before our eyes and, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all knew that the events of that afternoon would change our nation.
And the verdict in the trial of Dereck Chauvin is yet another liminal moment. When that verdict was read our country changed. Finally, thanks to the bravery of a seventeen-year-old who captured the murder on her cellphone and shared it with the world, a white officer was convicted of murdering a black, unarmed civilian. And many of us who do not personally know the experience of being a person of color in this country were offered a window into how the systemic racism baked into the fabric of our nation impacts our fellow citizens.
At a gathering on the steps of the Maplewood Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon my colleague Reverend Valencia Norman captured the challenge and the call of this moment. She said,
“Justice was not the prevailing force yesterday. Justice begins with just actions. It starts at each and every interaction that we have. When I see you and I recognize you and I respect you as my brother, as my sister: that is where justice begins. So what we’re doing today is continuing to give support to those fibers of justice. We do it for this generation so that our next generation is not working on this problem.”
The jury found Dereck Chauvin guilty on all three counts. He is being called to account for his actions. But the murder of George Floyd is a moral challenge to us all. With the verdict on Tuesday, we were invited to the other side of this liminal moment. The question is, what are we going to do with it?
Rabbi Daniel Cohen