Rabbinical School Divrei Torah Revealed Before the One

By Rabbi Avraham Yizhak (Arthur)
By Rabbi Arthur Green Rector and Betty Irving Professor of Philosophy and Religion

One of the most powerful phrases in this day of overwhelmingly powerful liturgical expressions comes in the introduction to the על חטא, repeated throughout the day, but notably missing from נעילה:

אתה יודע רזי עולם ותעלומות סתרי כל חי אתה חופש כל חדרי בטן ובוחן כליות ולב אין דבר נעלם ממך ואין נסתר מנגד עיניך

You know the mysteries of the universe As well as the hiddenmost secrets of each being that lives. You seek out all our innermost chambers, Testing our hearts and our innards. Nothing is hidden from You; No secret is kept from Your sight.

The theme is a repeated one in the Yom Kippur liturgy. God is described as:

צופה נסתרות, יודע מחשבות Knower of thoughts, Gazer into secrets.

הלא כל הנסתרות והנגלות אתה יודע You indeed know all, both the hidden and the revealed.

That phrase is based on a verse we just read in Parashat Nitzsavim:

הנסתרות לה אלהינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם Those things hidden are for Ha-Shem our God, but the revealed are for us and our descendants forever.

The נסתרות of that verse is taken by some commentators to refer to those transgressions of which even we ourselves are unaware. How can we repent of them? They are up to God; only God’s compassion and forgiveness can cleanse us of them. Just the נגלות, those things of which we are aware, can be the object of our own תשובה.

It strikes me that we have here one of many definitions of the indefinable reality we call God, the elusive אהיה אשר אהיה  that ever remains beyond our grasp. God is the One who knows all our secrets. To have faith in God is to admit, to accept, that my most intimate secrets do not belong to me alone, that there is a One that knows them all, accepting me and loving me as I most fully am, carrying all my secrets with me.

As I thought about this דרש over the course of the summer, two family stories occurred in the life of the Greens that I’d like to tell you about. Both have to do with secrets.

As you might guess, I am the “older relative” in most of my extended family who bears historic memory. When young people in one branch of cousinhood or another, all too infrequently, want to know some family story, they turn to me. This is true in my mother’s family and partially in one side of my father’s as well. But my father’s mother’s family has been a cipher to me. All contact with the Gersts, known in my childhood as dad’s Communist aunts and uncles in the Bronx, was cut off sharply about 45 years ago. The last time I remember seeing those folks was at a wedding in 1962, when they all stood together in the hallway during the huppah, because they would not walk into a religious ceremony. They were FRUM Communists.

But by the miracles on modern internet communication, someone was in touch with me in July asking: “Aren’t you a Gerst on one side of your family? There is a cousin who wants to be in touch with you.” Through her I made contact with my cousin Eleanor, daughter of my grandmother’s sister who was called “di roite Rifcheh,” “Red Rifcheh,” referring both to her politics and the color of her hair. She was one of four siblings in the Bronx, all of them active party members. My grandmother in New Jersey, though not a Communist, shared their utter disdain for religion. They were children of Hasidim who had rebelled hard, already in the old country. Of course these people are all long gone.

“Did you know about the other sibling?” Eleanor asked me in the course of our conversation. I did not, and was utterly fascinated. “Yes, one brother named Haskel remained frum,” she said. “He was too religious to come to America. So he, his wife, and eight children all died in the Lodz ghetto.” This had never been mentioned in my childhood or on into my adult years — not by my grandmother, nor my father the historian, or anyone else. A big family secret. Why? Were they ashamed they hadn’t tried to get him out? Given the vast difference in worldview, did they just ignore him, saying “He made his choice…?” I don’t know, of course. Eleanor still has a postcard from him, sent from the Lodz ghetto, one of those written in German saying how wonderful everything was. Then silence. Silence on this side of the ocean as well.

This is not a unique story. It has made me wonder about all of our immigrant grandparents, even those who, like mine, came before the First World War. They all must have remembered people left behind. If not siblings then cousins, neighbors, schoolmates, first loves. Surely they must have thought about them as the news started coming out in the early forties. Did they talk about them? Did they share their fears and the horror of their nightmares? Or do all of our families bear within us what the prophet calls a משא דומה, a burden of silence? How heavily did that silence fall upon our parents’ generation, and maybe upon ours? Did the tremendous desire for successful Americanization and “making it” here come in part out of those secrets and that silence? What has been the cost, carried on through the generations, of bearing that burden?

אתה ודעי רזי עולםOnly God knows all our secrets. Even the secrets of atheists, of doubters, of those who cry out against God.

The other story is a somewhat lighter one. As many of you know, my wife Kathy published a memoir this year. After a lovely book event here at Hebrew College, we went on a “massive” publicity campaign. Its highlight was an interview in the Leavenworth, Kansas Times, the local paper of the town where Kathy grew up. Then we received about 10 book orders and emails, mostly from people who remembered Kathy from high school. Some still lived in Leavenworth; others had moved away but, unlike Kathy, still kept in touch with the hometown paper. One such note came from Harlingen, Texas. “I was so happy to hear about your book,” the person wrote. “You may not remember this, but when we were in junior high school, you asked me to accompany you to a dance. I first said yes, but then I changed my mind and backed out. My father told me, ‘Gentlemen don’t do that,’ and I’ve felt guilty about it ever since eighth grade. Now I finally have a chance to tell you my secret and apologize to you.” A week later we got a note from the president of the Harlingen synagogue, telling us that this non-Jewish gentleman had made a contribution in memory of Kathy’s father.

Don’t just laugh at this poor guy. Think of your own most embarrassing moment as an adolescent, the one you’ve never been able to tell anyone about. This too is one of תעלומות סתרי כל חי a secret also known to God.

Now those of you who know some of my theological writings, especially “Radical Judaism,” might be a bit surprised by this language. Isn’t this, after all, a rather personified and indeed paternalistic view of God, one who looks down as though through a giant satellite camera, peering into all our secret places? Wouldn’t we at some point just prefer to be free of such a God, managing our secrets on our own, thank you? But you may also know that my key move, as a reader of Judaism in the mystical mode, is to insist that all vertical metaphors may also be read on an internal plane. Whenever we read about God “above,” learn to think of it as “within.” If God is said to dwell beyond the clouds, that means that universal consciousness resides deep within us, beyond the “clouds” of our ego needs and our clamor for individuality. Moses’ journey up Mount Sinai to find revelation is what I call “a vertical metaphor for an internal event.” The true journey is inward, not upward. Here too, it is Y-H-W-H as Universal Mind that dwells within each of us, the Source of all mind, to which our individual minds are fully transparent. Our great inward journeys open us to the presence of such mind, one that transcends all the smallness of our ordinary concerns.

If you like such metaphors, you might say that each of us is a work station of the great universal mainframe computer. Our hidden thoughts are then like emails sent in that single great mail program. No confidentiality guaranteed. Of course our secrets are known, for they are part of consciousness, part of mind, all of which is ultimately one.

But because humans are not just minds, we recognize that an opening toward the One that knows and embraces us so fully can also come about on an emotional level. Here, the broken heart at the center of Bratslav piety appeals to me more than the call for detachment of contemplative HaBaD — or Vipassana, for that matter. If it is consciousness of the self that gets in our way of seeing, then humility and contrition should be virtues that count. The One who knows all our secrets becomes visible to the inner eye when the heart of stone becomes a broken tablet and we bend low to pick up the pieces.

The real religious message of this? We are all exposed and therefore vulnerable. דע לפני מי אתה עומד “Know before whom you stand” means that we are here in the presence of One who knows us fully, One with whom there are no games to play.The only self present at נעילה is our most naked self, fully revealed to the One who knows all.

But this vulnerability is frightening, causing us to tremble. That is the real trembling of Yom Kippur, beyond the question of “Who shall live and who shall die?” Who can stand up to his/her own vulnerability in such a moment? Who is ready to be known that intimately? And so we seek refuge. But who is the one who can protect us from a God who knows us so well, seeing all our hidden faults? Only God, of course, the one who loves us anyway, as we most fully are ourselves.

In נעילה we will turn again and again to the אל מלך, the powerful evocation of the God of mercy and of cleansing. That key passage comes from Exodus, the account of Moses seeking forgiveness for the original sin of Israel, that of the Golden Calf. This day commemorates that pardon. But as Moses reaches high — or deep within — to find his way to God, he is told that it is too dangerous, for “no man shall see Me and live.” Therefore God says to him, in what may be the most touching line in all of Torah, הנה מקום אתי, “Look! There’s room here with Me!” I will make a space for you, and “I will put My palm over you” to protect you “until I pass.”

Who can protect us from the powerful, demanding presence of the One who knows everything there is to know about us? Only the same One, the One who loves us.

Because of that loving presence, נעילה is a time of joy and confidence. It is the moment best described by the Psalmist’s words וגילו ברעדה, “rejoice in trembling.” We have already been written into the Book of Life. Now we just have to seal the deal. Let us all rise up into the joy of that moment.

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