Revelation is a tricky thing. For Moses it took place at age 80 while standing in front of a burning bush. For Abraham it was in Haran at age 75 when he heard the voice of God telling him to take a different path from his ancestors and become a blessing to all the families of the world.
For me it happened while walking across the campus at the University of California in Davis on my 20th birthday. No, I don’t recall seeing God in a bush or hearing God’s voice calling my name and giving me any commandments – but here it is 33 years later and I still remember that moment as if it were today.
It was my birthday and I should have been excited, looking forward to a party that was happening that evening where I would be playing music with some friends at a restaurant and sharing some of my original songs with the crowd. But instead, I was depressed, upset, profoundly sad and disappointed in myself to the very core of my being.
First, I was depressed because I was no longer a teenager with all the carefree lack of responsibility that that identity traditionally implied. Second, I was depressed because I wasn’t an adult yet – “adult status” at the time being defined as someone 21 years of age or older. I felt like I was in a state of suspended animation – trapped between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.
I walked aimlessly along the pathways of the Davis campus that afternoon until I finally found myself sitting under a tree gazing out at the world. I saw all the students and professors and campus visitors hurrying along to whatever classes or appointments they had, and at that moment I had a flash of self-reflection the impact of which took me years to understand.
With total clarity I can remember exactly the thought that came into my mind: “I am 20 years old already, and what have I got to show for myself?” I sat there looking back on my life and where I had been and what I had done, and felt as though I if I died that moment there would be nothing to show of my life to be proud of.
It was a heavy thought for a 20 year old, and if I hadn’t already been sitting down, it would have knocked me off my feet. “What do I have to show for myself?” became the theme of a song that I wrote while sitting under that tree, bemoaning all the time I had wasted in my life, all the petty things I had spent my energy worrying about, and all the missed opportunities to make a difference in the world.
It was that moment on that lawn on that birthday, many years ago, that set the direction of my life ever since. I’m no Abraham, but I sure heard my own inner voice challenging me to live my life in such a way that by my next birthday and the one after that, and the one after that I would be able to look back and say, “Yes, I do have something to show for myself and my life.”
Revelation is a tricky thing. We all have “aha!” moments in life, where we come to some insight, see the world in a different way, change our direction and our choices and thereby change our lives. Tomorrow night is the beginning of Shavuot, what Jewish tradition calls “zman matan torataynu” – “The time of the giving of the Torah.” It is our traditional celebration of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, of the giving of the Ten Commandments, of that powerful moment when Moses stood face to face with God and wrote down the words that would forever change the world.
This week, this festival of Shavuot is a good time to stop and think about our own life choices, the words we have shared with others by speaking or writing, and the consequences of those choices for the quality of our lives and the lives of others.
I keep thinking about that moment on my 20th birthday and all the subsequent choices and decisions that I made, including going to Israel for my Junior year of college a few months later, and becoming inspired by that experience to go to rabbinic school and become a rabbi. I know that underneath it all I was driven by the desire to matter. To know that what I said mattered, and what I did mattered and who I was mattered. Becoming a rabbi was my way of making a difference.
Revelation is a tricky thing, but no matter how it comes it is a gift. Part of the challenge of living life fully is to be open to see the fire in the bush or hear the voice of God amidst the noise and clutter of our lives. Take some time this week to find a quiet place to be alone. Choose one of God’s many names, and as you slow down your breathing and relax, let that name of God simply fill your mind and hear whatever it has to say. What better way could there possibly be to celebrate Shavuot this year?