Hidden and Revealed

Sermon Shabbat Shuvah
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Hidden and Revealed

I’m going to make a parenting confession: I found myself out of my depth.

I was playing with my son the and he was a king (with a gold paper crown) who locked me up in his castle. As the occupant of his ‘dungeon’, I asked him why he was locking me up. ‘Because you were bad.’ Ah, said I, is there a way for me to get out of the dungeon by being good? Yes, he said, as he sprang the pretend-gate and I was set free. My son is a benevolent ruler and my freedom was returned to me. In Hebrew we would call this ‘matir asurim’, ‘who frees the bound.’ Me, seeing a teaching moment in this, started talking about the kingship metaphor; how God is the King or Queen of the Universe and how the High Holidays are about us stopping being bad and turning to goodness.

Before I knew it, I had painted myself in a theological corner. The metaphor worked well; my five-year-old got the basic principles of teshuvah; of saying sorry, making things better, promising to not do something again. And he understood the basic concepts of Malchut, Divine Sovereignty. There is an order to the universe and moral clarity to our lives. I’m sure to a five-year-old that’s reassuring theology. But I was left with more questions than I had answered.

Pediatric theology is that pernicious branch of theology that many of us have grown up with. It’s the pie-in-the-sky stuff; God as a cosmic dispenser of favors and miracles. I’ve pondered how I would instill an authentic Jewish spirituality in my kids without caving to facile answers that I would later have to undo. I pray with my children, but they are prayers of gratitude, not intervention. I teach my children the stories of the Torah and that God passionately cares about justice and protecting the vulnerable. I insist that God loves us all and that God is Someone who lives in our hearts – not literally, of course – but in terms of the inner moral worlds we can access. I never say that God fixes things or punishes people, God forbid. I teach my children normative scientific understandings of the world. And yet, I felt out of my depth.

There is no adequate way that we can have any God-conversation, especially not with children, and I will rely on their ability to thoughtfully question the premises of my teaching, find joy, community and spirituality in their Judaism and ultimately find their own way in life. What I would really like to tell my children is that God is a lifelong journey, a dance between the hidden and the revealed, sparks of transcendence shot through our lived experience. That ‘God’ is the ultimate code word, the supreme placeholder for all we hold sacred. I would say to my children that there is not only Jewish theology, but theologies, ranging from fierce, righteous atheism to the passionate, mystical cleaving of the Chassidim.

That humanism, pantheism and theism can exist side-by-side: not just between communities, but within communities and within individuals. That I experience emptiness and doubt just as regularly as God’s presence and love - and a mature relationship with the Divine means acknowledging both of those experiences as legitimate. I would say that I’m proudly unapologetic regarding my own religiosity. And that last but not least, one’s quest for God is not about certitude but about commitment. A covenantal relationship with God is about saying ‘hineini’ – ‘I’m here’ – to the fullness of life and the ethical imperative of our tradition.

Yet, here I am, with a five-year-old boy on my lap who wants to see ‘videos of the Big Bang’ and all I can do is pull up YouTube on my phone and show him animations from astronomy programs and affirm in him his sense of wonder, questioning and abiding love.

During my Rosh haShanah sermon on the first morning, I talked about finding our purpose in our Jewish lives and that God is a central component of that equation. I did not mean that all must believe or that irreligious lives are empty lives. What I meant by that is that we cannot live Jewish lives by instinct alone: the freedoms and challenges of our age charges us to be thoughtful and reflective of our Jewishness, to rise beyond reactivity and ambivalence and embrace choice and commitment. To make Judaism our own and to ascribe to it a higher and deeper mission.
‘God’ is the placeholder for the theology of our heart, for deep and authentic questioning and for a willingness to commit seriously to the project of Judaism. Perhaps then, that elusiveness will find some grounding and meaning and this will allow us to do the hard work of personal transformation and global Redemption.  

The Parashah for Shabbat Shuvah is Vayeilech. It’s a surprisingly short Parashah, only thirty verses long. It gears us up for Ha’azinu and V’zot B’rachah, the capstone pieces of Moses’ life. There is a curious verse, about halfway through the portion, that paints a striking image: ‘Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day – v’anochi haster astir panai bayom hahu’ - because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.’ (Deut. 31:18). This concept of ‘hester panim’ has become an important feature of Jewish post-Holocaust theology. What are we supposed to make of this image of God hiding God’s own face? Of a world where God’s presence feels remote and unlikely – or worse yet – offensive and trite in the face of so much evil?

On Yom Kippur, I will continue my sermon series on ‘Veheyeh B’rachah’ – ‘Be a Blessing’ by talking about community. I will address some of the challenges and opportunities the American Jewish community faces in the 21st (or 58th) century. The God conversation has often been left out of the communal conversation and I would argue that we ought to put it back in. Not to coerce us to believe but to prepare our hearts for a deeper, more sophisticated thinking in our lives.
To make space for the broad range of emotions: anger, curiosity, fear, love, devotion, questioning. We must contend with ‘hester panim’, God’s ‘hiddenness’ and our response to that hiddenness, plotted along the axis of our many, valid, creative, meaningful theologies, from holy atheism to transformative devotion.

I have to accept that I cannot give my son perfect answers. It’s a process. I hope to remain in conversation with him and slowly, slowly expand the parameters of his thinking so that I can graduate him from pediatric theology into something mature and sustaining, something that will undergird his values and make him feel loved and called to service of this great, big, mysterious universe of ours. So that my children, and all our children perhaps can, in the words of our portion ‘be strong and resolute – chizku v’imtzu -, be not in fear or dread… for the Eternal your God Herself marches with you. Lo yar’p’cha v’lo ya’az’vecha – and will not fail or forsake you.’

We need not fail or forsake each other, our world or ourselves. We know that our journeys need not to be walked alone. We walk with each other and derive great courage and resolve therefrom.

Wishing you a thoughtful, transformative season of Teshuvah filled with questioning, wonder and love.


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