Minutes of Torah
Like most of us, you have just completed the Ten Days of teshuvah, of turning to God, of engaging in repentance. And as we conclude the holiday gauntlet experience with Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, we are launched, fresh, into a New Year of possibilities.
Yet even as these days of transformation wind down, you may find yourself, like me, wrestling with the same problematic habits for which I only recently atoned. Genuine transformation in our words and deeds is incremental at best and hard-won. As soon as we open our brand-new Book of Life and begin filling its pages with our actions, already we’re making errors. At best, it’s two steps forward and hopefully no more than one step backward.
Our annual reading from Parashat Bereishit describes a similar process: a freshly-minted, unblemished reality quickly seems to be marred by rebelliousness and transgression. Given carte blanche to enjoy anything they want from the extensive buffet in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the one menu item they’ve been told is off-limits:
The immediate consequence of Adam and Eve’s transgression is their consciousness of shame and an impulse to conceal. This awareness, coupled with cognizance of God’s Presence, leads them to “hide themselves from God’s presence.”
God then calls upon the man, “Where are you?”
This divine existential reality check occurs on a number of occasions in Scripture. As the 20th century philosopher Martin Buber points out, when asking this question God does not expect to learn something that God does not already know. God knows exactly where we are..
Rather, what God wants is to produce an effect in us. With this question, God knows that it is in our nature to hide and to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility. Indeed, Buber posits that every one of us is ‘Adam’; and to escape responsibility for our life, we turn our existence into a system of hideouts.
The Divine question asking us “Where are you?” is designed to awaken us from our system of hideouts.
We can see a similar process later in the parashah when, in a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother Abel, and then stonewalls when God responds with a similar question, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain said: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’”
Like Adam and Eve before him, Cain also seeks an illusory hiding place rather than confront his reality, out of shame and fear of unworthiness to stand in God’s presence. And we might imagine God sadly shaking the Divine head and continuing to inquire, moment by moment: “Where are you?” or in Cain’s case, “Where is your brother?”
To these timeless questions, Torah repeatedly teaches us the correct answer, as when Abraham or Moses are called by God: “hineini, — here I am.” To respond hineini, to, in effect, “awaken oneself,” involves more than remaining physically alert and shaking off the inner cobwebs. It means directing our attention to stimuli, including unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and sensations, which are constantly impelling us to flee from reality.
Each morning, we should resolve to confront ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves the question: “ayeka? – where are you”; and meet it with” “hineini – I am here.” By doing so, we avoid our natural inclination to flee or hide.
This week, we approach parashat Bereishit with two powerful messages already resonating within us. The final tekiah g’dolah of Yom Kippur expresses the eternal question “ayeka, where are you”; and inviting us to emerge from spiritual and ethical hiding. And the mantra we have chanted throughout the holidays, the Divine Thirteen Attributes of forgiveness, mercy, patience, and grace, reminds us that when we confront that question, we do so with greater compassion for ourselves and others, giving us the courage to meet the challenge of “Ayeka – Where are you?”