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Self-Revelation: Hiding and Seeking

Shavuot - Yizkor

by Harold M. Schulweis

The holiday of Shavuot is dedicated to revelation. Revelation implies that something is concealed. The human thirst and hunger for revelation is pervasive.

Somehow we sense that there is something more beneath the surface of things. The world is not what it appears to be. There is something deeper, hidden beneath the appearances of the world.

The world is too flat. Is that all there is, the accumulation of things: more toys, more games, more property?

Hiddenness has many traces in the Bible. The five books of Moses concludes with the hidden burial of Moses. Where is he buried? Where is Moses hidden? Was Moses hidden in a place rather than in a moment? Is Moses hidden in character rather than entombed?

Moses all his life recognizes the hiddenness of God and forever is asking God to reveal Himself: “Who are You and what is Your name?” And even when at last God speaks to reveal His name, he enigmatically says of Himself, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" – “I will be what I will be,” an elusive and evasive answer.

And throughout, Moses will ask, "Show me, I pray Thee Thy glory.” Moses seeks God's revelation and God answers, "You cannot see My face, for man shall not see me and live."

But there is a hint and a promise. For the Lord said to Moses, "Behold there is a place by Me and thou shall stand upon the rock, and it shall come to pass while My glory passes by that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand and you shall see My back but My face shall not be seen." God will not reveal Himself frontally.

It is in Deuteronomy 30 that God explains to Moses that the Law is revealed, and points out to Him, "This commandment which I command you this day is not too far from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say 'Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it unto us and make us to hear it that we may do it'. Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, 'Who shall go over the sea for us and bring it unto us and make us to hear it that we may do it?’" And then the exquisite statement from God: "The word is very nigh unto you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it."

What does that mean, “it is near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it"?

Here a remarkable insight is offered by Martin Buber that has to do with hiddenness. Early in the Torah, we remember that Adam and Eve hid out in the Garden Eden after their transgression. And God asked the first question in the Bible, namely "ayeka," or, “Where are you?” What lies behind that question?

Buber gives us a story of Rabbi Schnaer Zalman, the Rav of Northern White Russia, who was put in jail in St. Petersburg because the adversaries of Chasidism had denounced his principles. The rabbi was awaiting his trial when the chief of the Gendarmes entered his cell and began to converse with the rabbi. He asked him a number of questions about the Bible, and finally the gendarme asked, "How do you understand that the all-knowing God said to Adam ‘Where are you?’ Surely God knows everything. How then is He reduced to asking for the whereabouts of Adam?" The rabbi answered "Do you believe that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era and every generation and every man is included in them?” The gendarme answered, "I believe this." "Well then," said the rabbi, "in every era God calls to every man, 'Where are you in your world? So many years and days have passed and how far have you gotten in your world?' God says something like this: ‘You have lived forty-six years. How far along are you?'"

When the chief of the Gendarmes heard his age mentioned, he trembled, then pulled himself together and laid his hand on the rabbi's shoulder and cried, “Bravo." But his heart was troubled. Notice, if you will, that Schnaer Zalman, the rabbi, did not answer the gendarme’s question about God's omniscience. But he reframed the question into a different kind of inquiry. The question is not where is God out there, but where are you in here? The rabbi changed the focus of attention from something or someone external, into someone or something internal.

If the Torah is eternal, it is because it is internal. In that manner, every event that occurs in the Bible, every story about the patriarchs and matriarchs, is a reflection of our own inner lives. What we deal with in the Torah are many things that must be internalized. The sibling rivalries between Cain and Abel, between Isaac and Ishmael, between Jacob and Esau, between Joseph and the brothers, between Sarah and Haggar, between Rachel and Leah, beckon us to examine our own rivalries and our own relations. So, too, the many stories of Genesis of the betrayal and the reconciliation within the family of Jacob and Joseph. And the remarkable episode of the near sacrifice of the child Isaac at Mt. Moriah all touch upon our own selves and hiddenness of our own self from consciousness.

So Jacob and Esau are not simply twins out there, but twins within us which we are urged to uncover. The Esau and the Jacob of our own lives.

And so it is with every festival. It is not only an occasion to speak about the harvesting period in nature or some historical event of our people long ago. Every festival is a search for self-revelation. What is Passover? It is not an event then and there, or about then and there. It is that, of course. But it is an opportunity that encourages us to deal with our own bondage and our own enslavement and our own search for freedom. What is it that binds me? And what must I free myself from? Passover is about auto-emancipation, the discovery and the freedom of the self.

Sukkot is not simply a matter of dwelling in a hut. It raises questions about our own home and about the relationships within that home. It asks questions about the stability of our home and the atmosphere of our home.

And on Shavuot it is not simply a story about 600,000 who stand at the bottom of Sinai. It is a story about our own autonomy. What commandments do I truly accept? What commandments do I expect from myself? What is the hierarchy of my own values that do not come from a command from outside, but from an internal imperative?

And Yizkor does not refer only to evoking God's memory. But it asks us to contemplate and remember our own deaths. The deaths of those whom we love and our own death.

Who am I when I face my mortality, my finiteness, my fragility, my dust and ashes? What strength do I have facing dying and death? Where is my immortality? And how would I wish to be remembered? I probe, during Yizkor, my own hidden self. What are my hidden fears? And what are my hidden aspirations?

Finally, I want to turn to this searching of the self that is found in our daily prayers. For regretfully it is often passed over, read quickly and itself hidden. For we hide our individual selves in the collective "we.”

Turn with me to page 46 of the Siddur, and you will see a prayer which I suggest we transpose from "we" to "me,” from the collective "us" to the individual "I.” If so, I read this prayer as follows:

"What am I? What is my life? What is my goodness? What my righteousness? What my help? What my strength? What my might? What can I say before Thee O Lord my God and the God of my fathers? Is not the mightiest in me as naught before Thee? And my renown as though it was not? My wisdom as if it is without knowledge and my understanding as though it was lacking in discernment. Thine eyes, the multitude of my works is emptiness and the days of my life mere vanity. The preeminence of man over beast would be naught. All would be vanity."

Prayed this way, we are searching for the weakness and dark side of the self. And having gone through that interrogation, that self-inquiry, I am able to transcend that mood and to find another part of myself: "I am dust and ashes, but I am also a child of Your covenant, a descendent of Abraham to whom at Mt. Moriah You gave Your promise; seed of Isaac, his only son and I who is bound upon the altar; I am part of the congregation of Jacob, Your first born in whom You did make Israel out of Your love for him." And the prayer continues with a resolution. The resolution is upon me: "Therefore it is my duty to give thanks to You, to extol You, to hallow Your name. I am content. How good is my portion, how pleasant my lot, how beautiful my heritage. I join with my congregation, with my community, with my people and with the inner parts of my soul to declare twice daily: "Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

Now recite the kaddish, it also includes a prayer for myself. The occasion is the recollection of my parents. And the sanctification of God's name. But it also means to recollect my own self and to sanctify myself, my God-given talents and dispositions, to remind myself of my task to raise up Godliness in this world, to be witness to the qualities of divinity, to help raise the fallen and bind the bruises of the wounded, to help heal the sick and the lonely and protect the dispossessed.

I praise God. But in praising God I share in His reflected glory. For am I not a child of God? And did not God breathe into my nostrils the breath of soul and spirit? To praise God is to praise that inner self that is worthy of praise.

At Yizkor I remember my parents, and in doing so I remember myself. For am I not flesh or their flesh, blood of their blood, soul of their soul, spirit of their spirit?

Yizkor is a revelation of myself, a reminder of that which is so often interred in the dust of ambition, in the ashes of competition, in the fog that hides myself from myself. I pray to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, to fear no evil and to discover the hidden light of myself.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784