Recently read: Brown Taylor’s “Holy Envy”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, (Harper One, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others is a beautiful reflection from someone who has spent many years educating students in comparative religion while wrestling with implications of what she has learned from the process. As a Christian, Taylor admits that studying and teaching other religions can become a challenge to your confidence in your own tradition. She writes about how teaching a course on comparative religion has been enriching but also:

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 208

Yet Brown Taylor has decided that the answer is not to abandon her own tradition of Christianity. She comments:

In the first place, no one can speak all the religious languages in the world, and there is no spiritual Esperanto. None of us can speak “language.” We have to speak a language before we can learn anyone else’s, and the carefulness with which we speak our own can make us better listeners to others. In the second place, my religious language is quite excellent at speaking of what it means to be authentically human.

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 193.

Brown Taylor balances honest epistemology with authentic belief. On the one hand, there’s no need to try to create a brand new blend of religions. The blend creates something new—it doesn’t necessarily honor other religions. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to admit doubt about your own tradition. Christianity often has been a religion that demands triumphalism. Brown Taylor provides a path that allows the Christian to be Christian without posturing triumphalistically against other religions.

This is where the main theme of her book should be highlighted. Holy envy is a concept Brown Taylor derived from the great scholar of religion, Krister Stendahl, who had three rules for religious understanding (quoted here from p. 65):

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

Holy envy is when you learn to love and respect the traditions of other religions but in a way that doesn’t try to create a colonialist museum out of them (an analogy she uses on p. 70). You may go to another well when the well of your tradition seems dry (p. 5) but that’s not the same as collecting and objectifying the religious beliefs and practices of others.

Brown Taylor sees her role as a Christian educating others about the world’s various religions as her “Christian duty”. She says (p. 25), “I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do.” But it’s also nourishing for the self. It’s a way to see things from a new perspective and learn new ways of speaking about the world and our humanity in it.

As an educator who teaches students comparative religion from as objective and fair a place as possible, but for someone who also identifies as Christian, I found great joy in reading this book. It’s worth your time if you’ve ever wondered how being a Christian should shape your approach to/posture toward religious others. It’s a book of wisdom written in humility that’s worth your time.

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Recently read: Jennings “After Whiteness”

Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Willie James Jennings (Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School) has written a challenging reflection on the current state of theological education and what many institutions value in how they train students. His main concern is with the formation of students: What does a graduate become? What values do they receive? For Jennings, most institutions are preparing their students to function in a world that values “whiteness” which he defines not as “people of European descent” but “to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making” (p. 9). This is exemplified by “White self-sufficient masculinity” that “is a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of dense life together” (pp. 8-9). If I’ve understood him correctly, education, and even theological education, aims to create the self-sufficient man (and yes, I think our culture’s visions of masculinity is key), the Lone Ranger-type.

One example he uses is the Paterfamilias of the colonial plantation who is the self-sufficient center around which everyone else circles (see pp. 78-83). The foundation of the type of education that has been passed along to us was designed first and foremost for that male heir; that mythological “great man”. Jennings describes it this way:

A vision of the self-sufficient man—one who is self-directed, never apologizing for his strength or ability or knowledge, one who recognizes his own power and uses it wisely, one bound in courage, moral vision, singularity of purpose and not given to extremes of desire or anger—is a compellingly attractive goal for education and moral formation.

p. 31

In contrast to this elite man, Jennings writes:

We have failed to see that this is the ground of theological education and of all education that aims at the good. It is the crowd—people who would not under normal circumstances ever want to be near each other, never ever touching flesh to flesh, never ever calling in unison upon the name of Jesus, never ever listening together to anything except Roman edict or centurion shouting command, now listening to the words of Jesus. Yet the crowd is not Christian, nor is the crowd exclusively Jewish. The crowd is not a temporary condition on the way to something else. The crowd is the beginning of a joining that was intended to do deep pedagogical work.

p. 13

I don’t teach in a theological institution (though my school is supported by The Episcopal Church). Also, the book reads like you’ve sat down to have a chat with Jennings. He shares stories and poetry that weaves through his insights. It’s the type of book I’d never “review” because while its true that all acts of reading are subjective experiences, this one is subjective in the way a conversation is subjective. If each reader sat down and talked to Jennings about this same series of topics it would be a different experience depending on your identity and affiliations.

I don’t think you have to teach in a theological institution to learn from this book. Some of his insights on institutions in general were all too relevant, real, and challenging for me and I teach a very demographic than the one Jennings teaches. But if you’ve wondered about the model of education that’s primarily about the individual and not the community—the one that aims to set you up for success rather than bringing us together—then you’ll benefit no matter what age or topic you teach.

Recently read: Carr’s ‘Holy Resilience’

David M. Carr, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

This isn’t hyperbole: David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins may be the best book written about the Bible that I’ve ever read. In one sense, it does what the ‘Biblical Theology’ movement has attempted to do: provide an overarching canonology that accounts for the unification of this collection (or these collections). In another sense, it does what critical scholarship on the Bible often fails to do: show how the Bible can remain relevant, even life-giving, without resorting to a conservative Bibliology.

There are two threads that tied this book together for me and in turn that tie the Bible together for me: (1) the impact of collective and individual trauma on the creation of the Bible (Carr is a Christian so by ‘Bible’ he’s including the Jewish and Christian Bibles) and (2) the various waves of adaptation, adoption, or even supersessionism that make up the Bible.

Let me begin with the first thread. Carr emphasizes how collective traumas such as the Assyrian invasion, the Babylonian Exile (including the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple), the waves of returning exiles, the emergence of the Greeks and the counter-emergence of the Hasmoneans, the execution of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans, and broad Roman disdain for the ‘atheistic’ Jews and Christians shaped these collections but also the movements that inspired them and in turn have been inspired by them.

This means re-reading popular Bible stories through the lens of trauma, such as Genesis’ Abraham (living in Babylonia, leaving, and having descendants in spite of the odds against it) or Exodus’ Moses (the Exodus itself, Passover, and the reminder of enslavement that comes with these stories). These stories were told as a means of addressing the experience of exiles.

As to the second thread: In Chapter 2, ‘The Birth of Monotheism’, Carr read the Book of Hosea as an important shift toward monotheism wherein the prophet doesn’t blame the Assyrians for the demise of Israel, but blames Israel, and in an effort to regain some sense of control, argues that Yahweh willed it all. Monotheism’s problem, ‘Theodicy’, is essential to monotheism because monotheism emerged as a way of addressing the chaos of life. Carr has a wonderful line on p. 248 for people that might be repulsed by these origins: ‘Those inclined to ridicule the idea of a powerful, violent God—whether Jewish or Christian—might well defer their disdain until they encounter someone for whom that idea is the only thing giving him or her a sense of control over an otherwise overwhelming chaos.’ That line stopped me and made me think of people I know, have known, and even stages of my own life and theology.

What Carr observes regarding supersessionism is this: Judah embraced Hosea’s ideas even though Hosea was a prophet from Israel. And then over time, Judah began to refer to themselves as ‘Israel’ once Israel was gone. And therefore, in some sense, it’s no surprise that partially by way of Paul, and partially by way of Rome’s treatment of Jews and Christians, the gentile Christians came to see themselves, in some way, as the heirs of ‘Israel’s’ story just as Judah once did. Additionally, we could add Islam to this discussion, which Carr does only in passing. But the trend is there, from Judah becoming the true Israel, to ‘the Church’ becoming the true Israel, to Islam becoming the truest version of both, supersessionism abounds.

As a final word, let me say if the Bible is meaningful to you, read this book. And let me share this paragraph from p. 250 that really summarizes the beauty of seeing the Bible through the lens offered by Carr:

‘I’m profoundly impressed with how the Bible is saturated with trauma and survival of it. If the Bible were a person, it would be a person bearing the scars, plated broken bones, muscle tears, and other wounds of prolonged suffering. It would be a person whose identity, perhaps average at one time, was now profoundly shaped by trauma. This person would certainly have known joys and everyday life, but she or he also would bear, in body and heart, the wisdom of centuries of trauma. He or she would know the truth of trauma and the survival of it. Just like the suffering servant of Isaiah or the crucified Christ, that person would not be pretty to look at. We might be tempted to avert our eyes. But for most of us, there will be a time when we need that person’s wisdom.’

Pete Enns remembers Rachel Held Evans

It’s been almost a year since we lost author and theologian Rachel Held Evans at far too young an age. Pete Enns has written a reflection on the meaning of her life that her friends, fans, and readers will appreciate and that I recommend: ‘Rachel Held Evans and Her God’.

Enns is right: our generation lost our Anne Lamott, our Barbara Brown Taylor, way too early.

Discussing the Book of Revelation

Last week I had a chance to chat with my friend and mentor, Dr. Jeff Garner, on the topic of the Book of Revelation. Here’s the video:

As a way of ‘footnoting’ this interview, I wrote ‘Meditating on the Apocalypse’ before the discussion so people can access my influences (including some really great recent articles by people like Allison Murray, Elizabeth Dias, and Kelly J. Baker).

Meditating on the Book of Genesis: 1.14-19

When I said I’d do daily readings I may have been overly ambitious but it’s still a good goal, especially if I keep the sections smaller. Anyway, today I’m meditating upon Genesis 1.14-23.

NRSV:
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 

CEB:
14 God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. 15 They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened.16 God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. 17 God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.

19 There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.

BHS:

1.14 –
This god’s creative activity centers around separating (לְהַבְדִּ֕יל בֵּ֥ין)—Day and Night; Above-Waters and Below-Waters, Below-Waters and Dry Land—and name/purposing: Day; Night; Dome; Above-Waters; Below-Waters; vegetation; seed; fruit-bearing trees; etc.

1.16 –
Sun and Moon, or the ‘Greater’ Light and the ‘Lesser’ Light, rule the Day/Night. Many in the ancient world worshipped these lights as gods. They don’t receive this status here but they’re recognized as important nevertheless. Though their importance is contextualized as being non-gods created by the Creator God.

Theological Interpretation
The Creator’s activity as Creator isn’t making things out of nothing (Creatio ex Nihilo) here but organization of things created. It may be implied that these things were created previously but these acts of creation isn’t that act of creation. These acts of creation are organizing boundaries, designating authorities, and purposing. The Creator God oversee and administrates. The created things do as they are told—even the Greater and Lesser Lights.

1.6-13
1.1-5

More on the Ascension

As we’ve entered the Easter Season on our way toward Pentecost, theological discussions will focus more and more on the doctrine of the Ascension. For those thinking about this subject, I’d like to point your attention to the interview I did with Prof. James F. McGrath of Butler University a couple of weeks ago: ‘Interview: discussing the doctrine of the Ascension with Dr. James F. McGrath’. Additionally, if you’d like to think more about this topic, Howard Pepper has been sharing his interpretation of the Ascension from a liberal Christian perspective: see ‘Christian Evidence and Christian Myth-Making’ and ‘Action out of Jesus’ Ascension’.

Meditating on the Apocalypse

This week I was talking to my friend and mentor, Dr. Jeff Garner, and he informed me that the Church where he is a Pastor (where I spent several years of my life and where I married my wife, Miranda) is beginning a series on the Book of Revelation. He proposed that sometime next week we do a video interview (this time I’d be the one being interviewed rather than being in my traditional pandemic-time role as the one doing the interview) wherein we discuss this controversial text. In preparation, I want to write out some of my thoughts.

Why I avoid the Book of Revelation

First, I admitted that I’m sympathetic to those traditions that didn’t give the Book of Revelation canonical status. I understand why those traditions that did give it canonical status were slow in doing so. It’s place in the genre of Jewish Apocalyptic helps us better understand how it should be interpreted but that doesn’t make it easy to interpret. And as a quick Google search reveals, Revelation may be misused and abused more than any other book of the Bible. To take the Apocalypse seriously is to put yourself into a conversation with some shady and dangerous people.

Why I come back to the Book of Revelation

But there’s another reality I must face. John of Patmos (Rev. 1.1) was a disciple of Jesus who was persecuted by Rome. While many Christians in the United States today feign persecution, and that may color the Apocalypse, I must remember that Christians globally remain one of the most persecuted categories of people. To what degree John and his community were unfairly treated, we may never know, but if we put ourselves in the place of a ostracized and often maligned minority community within a sprawling Empire, we’re bound to be more sympathetic to John and his vision than if we read it through our experience with privileged American Christians who see a loss of status as the same thing as being persecuted or if we read through our experience with doomsday prophets and date predictors who are wrong, time after time.

I come back to the Book of Revelation because I recognize it gives a voice to those within my tradition who have been marginalized, silenced, and even martyred. I favor the Jesus of the Gospels who tends to be somewhat pacifistic (and who according to Anabaptist-hermeneutics was pacifistic). The Jesus of Revelation 19, the warrior-Jesus, seems to be a different, even contradictory, Jesus (see though the interpretation of Revelation by Quaker theologian Wess Daniels). Again, genre matters, so I don’t need to read passages like Revelation 19 as being literal predictions that Jesus will appear in space-time on our earth using violence against the armies of the world (as popularized in The Left Behind ‘novels’). There’s a place to spiritualize it, if you will, so that the warrior-Jesus fights spiritual enemies in ways that are depicted as mirroring the physical violence so common on our earth but hopefully subverting that physical violence to show that true warfare isn’t ‘against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ as the Pauline author of the Epistle to the Ephesians worded it.

How I read the Book of Revelation

This is how I’ve chosen to read the Apocalypse. I use the aforementioned author of Ephesians as a paradigm. He uses images of warfare not to advocate for warfare but to subvert the power claims of physical warfare—the kind of warfare perfected by Empires but not the the Kin(g)dom of God (or whatever other metaphor works best for you).

Speaking of ‘Empire’, this is central to how I interpret this text. On several occasions, John of Patmos mentions ‘Babylon’ (Rev. 14.8; 16.19; 17.5; 18.2, 10, 21). Most scholars seem to agree that this code for ‘Rome’. John knows better than to critique Rome-as-Rome so he critiques Rome-as-Babylon. His Jewish readers would’ve known what he meant by Babylon, the destroyer of the First Temple, was Rome, the destroyer of the Second Temple. Also, they would’ve been familiar with a tradition going back to the Book of Daniel where the fall of one Empire only leads to the rise of the next Empire so that in some sense one can speak of there being an ‘Evil’ that might ‘die’ with the collapse of Persia, or the Ptolemies, or the Seleucids, but can always return from the dead again, as they were seeing in Rome.

So, while there’s a place for reading the Apocalypse as a book of ‘lasts’, there’s also a place for reading the Apocalypse as a reminder that the ‘spirit’ of Empire reincarnates.

Why the Book of Revelation is relevant right now

The Book of Revelation is an ‘apocalypse’. It begins with these words in the NRSV, ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ…’ which translate Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. That first word, Ἀποκάλυψις, transliterated Apokalupsis, doesn’t mean the ‘end’ of something, per se, but it means that something is being revealed (which is why it’s called the ‘Book of Revelation‘). Another way of saying this is that something is being exposed; something that wasn’t visible is being made visible. This might mean that the heavenly or spiritual realm is being revealed to earthly or physical eyes, or it might mean what the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes (12.14) meant when he says, ‘For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ Or what the Matthean Jesus (12.36-37) meant when he says, ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’

In the Christian tradition there will be some sort of ‘final’ apocalypse in this sense. The Apostle Paul warned in Second Corinthians 5.10, ‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ The Nicene Creed states, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ And then there’s the liturgical acclamation: ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’ But not every ‘apocalypse’ has to be final, final.

But it’s possible to experience a semi-apocalypse, i.e., an apocalypse that ends an age. This is subjective. It’s not necessarily what the Apostle Paul, or the Nicene Creed, or the aforementioned liturgical confession mean, but it’s real. Elizabeth Dias wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times titled ‘The Apocalypse as an “Unveiling”: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times’ that makes this point better than I can.

Every semester when I teach the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, I frame their origination around the collective trauma of the destruction of the First Temple (the Hebrew Scriptures) and the execution of Jesus and destruction of the Second Temple (the Christian Scriptures) to explain why these works were written, by whom, and to whom. (As I’ve written, David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins has been an important dialogue partner for me.) Every semester I try to relate these collective traumas to what Americans experienced during 9/11. The problem has been that my students can’t relate. When I was younger, I understood the concept of ‘Pearl Harbor’ but didn’t ‘understand’ it. Similarly, this year, I don’t think any of my students had been born yet when 9/11 happened. They ‘understand’ my reference but they don’t understand my reference.

Now, COVID-19, and this pandemic, has caused collective trauma. It has ended an age (see Ben Rhodes, ‘The 9/11 Era is Over’) and a new one will emerge. We talk about the ‘new normal’ knowing not of what we speak. For the foreseeable future, when I want my students to understand what prompted the formation of the writings they know as the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’ I won’t relate the destruction of the First and Second Temples to 9/11; I’ll relate these traumas to this earth-shattering, time-stopping pandemic.

Allison Murray’s ‘What is Now Uncovered/Don’t Waste an Apocalypse’ gets to the point I want to make next. Apocalypses shatter our myths. They expose our false narratives. As an American, the triumphalism of the military industrial complex, or Wall Street, have been shown to be lies. Bombs don’t stop a pandemic. Money doesn’t stop a pandemic. And when a pandemic hits your shores, no wall is going to stop a pandemic. But the pandemic will show you what happens when ‘the wealthiest nation on earth’ forces most people to live paycheck-to-paycheck, spends more on war than healthcare, continues to underserve communities (usually because of race), ignores the weaknesses of its education system (or in DeVos-mode, tries to ruin that education system). Many people saw our weaknesses as an empire. Now the pandemic has left us nowhere to hide.

I don’t mean this in a cheery, triumphalistic, ‘told-you-so’ way. This apocalypse is horrifying, as Dr. Kelly J. Baker’s article ‘It’s the End and Nothing Feels Fine’ rightly captures. But we’re here now. And the Book of Revelation is less literature to be read and more a mirror for reflection. What happens when the unseen is seen? What happens when the lies are exposed? What happened when an era ends? Apocalypse. As Pope Francis has proclaimed, this isn’t divine judgment, but it’s our judgment. This virus has judged us. It has exposed us. There’s nothing more apocalyptic than that.

Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ via Wikimedia Commons

 

Interview: discussing the Apostle Paul with Dr. Michael Barber

Yesterday I had a lengthy conversation with Dr. Michael Barber of the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. We talked about his new book Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology, the Apostle Paul himself, Paul’s letters and theology, and why Paul is meaningful to Catholics, Protestants, and even non-Christians.

Some parts the video are a bit choppy due to Internet connection. For that, I apologize. But overall it’s a great conversation that I hope y’all enjoy.

Here are the questions I asked Dr. Barber during our interview:

  1. Tell us why I’m talking to you about the Apostle Paul. What does Paul have to do with your research? 
  2. Can you provide a short biography of Paul? Who was he? Why is he important? What does he have to do with the eventual shape of Christianity?
  3. A couple weeks ago my students encountered the Resurrection Narratives of the Gospels. Soon they’ll read Paul’s explanation of the resurrection from his First Epistle to the Corinthians. Additionally, they have a basic understanding of Jewish apocalypticism. Can you connect Jesus’ resurrection, apocalypticism, and Paul’s worldview together for us?
  4. Many of my students have spent time learning about the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. As you explain in your book Paul, a New Covenant Jew (co-authored with Brant Pitre and John A. Kincaid), Paul values these covenants but he interprets then in relation to the ‘New Covenant’. What’s this New Covenant and what does it have to do with the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants?
  5. What’s central to Paul’s theology? What’s the the core of his thought? 
  6. While I teach at an Episcopal high school the religious-majority is Catholic. You’re a Catholic scholar. What’s one thing you wish Catholics understood better about Paul? And then let’s flip it around and tell me what’s one thing you wish Protestants understood better about Paul?
  7. Finally, what’s the relevance of Paul for my students who aren’t religious or who come from religious traditions other than Christianity? Is there anything in Paul’s thought that they can find valuable?

Easter 2020

In Luke’s Gospel the two disciples who traveled to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus until they saw him through the breaking of the bread. For many Christians, this is how Jesus is seen and heard every week. This pandemic has taken away that experience away from them. Instead, we’re left with something closer to Mark’s open-ended account of the Resurrection. We’re trembling with fear. We don’t understand what’s happening. We haven’t experienced closure.

The Evangelist Matthew reminds us in this time that Jesus’ final words include the promise that he’ll be with us always, even to the end of the age. The Evangelist John reminds us that like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, we can hear the Resurrected One’s voice if we listen as we’re addressed by name.

In our sacred Scriptures we have four similar but unique interpretations of the Resurrection. This year it’s important to remember that; it’s important to remember that we don’t experience the risen Lord the same; it’s important that even our individual experiences of Easter can change.

This Easter isn’t ruined. It’s different. It’ll add new texture to your understanding of the event and it’s meaning. Next year we’ll break bread again. But this year we experience fear and trembling, we hope for the the divine presence, and we listen for the Voice