The Liminal Spaces of Life

When we arrive at the limen, or threshold,  for example of a new year, we need to pause a while and catch our breath before we step out of this liminal space and fully embark on the path of the new year, ripe with its potential and challenges. There are many such spaces in our lives – daily, weekly and monthly  – and particularly as we reach major milestones.


Psychology and physiology describe a limen as the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity that it begins to produce noticeable effect; for example, the threshold of pain, or of consciousness.
In our walk with G-d, the stimulus we seek and depend on is the vision He births in us – the particular and personal word we need to hear from Him; the stimulus that will guide and direct us in the unique path He has prepared for us to walk in.  We cannot rush blindly ahead. Rather, as Shel Silverstein’s poem expressed in our Introduction to The Liminal Space,

“We will walk with a walk that is measured and slow, and we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows [His directions] go.”

In general, we humans are not comfortable with this liminal experience. We like to believe we are always fully “with it” – that we have everything under control, that we are in charge of all that is happening in our lives and of what is around us. We don’t like to feel “neither fully here nor there” as we wait on direction from G-d; to see where He places the next chalk-white arrow. With a touch of grim humor, we sometimes refer to a liminal space as “a twilight zone.”

Physically, we experience the daily liminal spaces of sunrise and sunset. Twilight is the bewtixt and between light – the time we can enjoy the soft diffused light as the sun sets, the day wanes and night begins to fall. Biblically, this is the beginning of a new day. As we read in Genesis 1:5, ” And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

At twilight the rush and busy-ness of the day slows down. We can take time to consider the work of our hands, what we have accomplished and learned, as a form of preparation for the day to come. Based on Genesis 3:8, we popularly believe that this cool, twilight time of the day was when the LORD walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is a sad thing, in our modern, technological age, that too many sunrises and sunsets are overlooked and ignored. We lose their gifts of quietness, contemplation, awe at the marvels of Creation and fellowship with the Creator.


Birth and Death are two major liminal spaces every person must traverse. We make the major move from one realm of existence to the next. A lovely verse in the Jerusalem Talmud describes:

“In death [as in birth], two worlds meet with a kiss:
the world going out and the future coming in.”

Life comes and life goes and during the interim years we do not know the reason why things happen as they do. We experience the goodness and joy and also the sorrow and pain. How can we understand the mysteries of life and death?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev once cried out to G-d:

I do not beg You to reveal to me the secret of Your ways – I could not bear it! But show me one thing; show it to me clearly and more deeply; show me what this that is happening at this very moment means to me, what it demands of me, what You, Lord of the World, are telling me by way of it. Ah, it is not why I suffer that I wish to know, but only whether I suffer for Your sake.

We too can ask. “LORD, it is not why I live that I wish to know but whether I live for Your sake?” Every day, every moment is a gift of time. Our Father in Heaven gives us the breath of life that enables us to live each moment. When our days are lived for His sake, we sanctify them and bring eternity into them. Then, every passing moment is a liminal space – a new arrival, a fresh beginning – a  time of rich possibility to partner with G-d and to further His redemptive plan for all mankind. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel,

The greatest problem [with life] is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence… Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. G-d has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The World to Come is not only a hereafter but a here-now!

The Irish poet and teacher, John O Donohue (obm – z”l ) bemoaned the fact that in modern secular society the thresholds of life are not recognised or celebrated meaningfully. Key thresholds pass by withut distinction from the mundane, the everyday. When we approach our significant thresholds with reverence and attention, they will bring us more blessing than we could have imagined. This blessing brings transformation and awakens any gift the crossing has to offer. In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, O’ Donohue describes:

Each central phase of life begins at a decisive threshold where you leave one way of being and enter another. …It is an intense frontier that divides one world of feeling and being from another. It is a dividing line between past and future. Crossing can often mean the total loss of all you enjoyed while on the other side. Usually the reason you cannot return to where you were is that you have changed; you are no longer the one who crossed over. Once a blind man crosses the threshold into vision, his life is no longer lived in the constricted mode of blindness; new vision means new pastures.


O’ Donohue also made the very interesting observation that the word ‘threshold’ is related to the word ‘thresh’ – the separation of the grain from the husk. To cross a threshold, therefore, carries the meaning that in the crossing we leave behind the dried and outworn husks of what is no longer suitable or needed and we go forward with all the promise of the life-bearing grain.  He wrote:

The old barriers no longer confine you,
the old wounds no longer name you,
and the old fears no longer claim you.

The old patterns are transformed and the fruitful is drawn out of the past. We can press eagerly forward with new vision and inspiration as G-d ushers us forward with all the grace, peace and strength we need for the next phase of the journey.

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~ Keren Hannah

14 Responses

  1. I read all the article but went back to a place that I seemed to not be able to leave.”We lose their gifts of quietness, contemplation, awe at the marvels of Creation and fellowship with the Creator” then I have to ask what have I lost.

  2. Thank you for sharing the quote from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. Where did you find it? What a gem! I need to type it up in fancy lettering, frame it, and put it on my wall. It’s an amazing feeling to find my heart’s cry mirrored in the words of another. Such an encouragement!

    1. Sarah, I found it quoted in a little book called ‘At theThreshold – Jewish Meditations on Death’ Edited by Michael Swirsky. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was an amazing Hassidic leader and teacher.

  3. Keren, if you developed this into another book, I think it would be one of my favorites. Thank you so much for doing the hard work of weaving all that goodness together so beautifully. I too am a John O Donohue fan.

  4. This helps me understand with greater clarity why unloading the cares of the world and the pride of life is so necessary. You bring light to my world of darkness. Forever grateful.

  5. I can’t get enough of this. Just re-read it and it is so full of life and hope. There are so many I want to share it with! Thanks again, Keren!

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