David Segal: Guest Column
Aspen, CO, Colorado
A story is told of a great and pious rebbe whose young grandson came in crying to him one day.
“Why are you crying?” the rebbe asked.
The boy answered, “I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends, and I waited and waited for them to find me, and after a while when they still hadn’t found me, I gave up.”
The rebbe said, “So why are you crying? Isn’t that the point of the game – to hide so well that you can’t be found?”
“But they decided not to play anymore,” cried the boy. “They stopped looking for me, and that made me sad.”
And the rebbe sighed and replied, “Now you can imagine how God must feel. God hides and wants us to seek, but most of us have quit playing and stopped looking.”
An ancient example of this beautiful story appears in this week’s Torah portion, in the book of Exodus. Moses seeks to see God’s very presence. God responds by partially granting Moses’ request: “You cannot see my face, for a human being may not see me and live. … Station yourself on the rock and, as my presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).
Moses gets only a glimpse of the divine, as we get only glimpses of the infinite and transcendent in our lives. For most of us, those moments are few and far between when we feel we know our place in the universe and that life has meaning and purpose. Moses was actively and passionately looking for the face of God; too seldom do we genuinely seek out those moments of transcendence.
In this valley, we are not bad at being individual seekers. We head outdoors and connect spiritually with the sky, trees, rivers and, most of all, the mountains. Perhaps we even have moments like Moses, standing in the cleft of a rock up high, taking in a breathtaking view, hoping to catch a glimpse, if not of God, of something greater than ourselves.
In my Modern Jewish Theology class this week, we studied Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who preached about the power of nature in opening us to awe and wonder. When we stand in “radical amazement” at the miracles of every day, we access our capacity to embrace the mysteries of existence and of the self. Children are naturally attuned to this, but our will to wonder is dulled as we grow. Like Moses, we can catch glimpses of a presence if we nourish our ability to feel awe. Individual spiritual experiences are essential to this deepening of self.
But Heschel also taught that individual “radical amazement” is not an end, a teaching that our valley would benefit from learning. As a local yoga teacher said, “The mountain is great for personal spirituality, but when you lose a loved one or struggle with a painful life challenge, the mountain can’t help you much.” What we need in those times are community, sacred relationships and even religious ritual. If we can incorporate a sense of “hide and seek” into our everyday experience, then we will be better equipped to face suffering and challenge when they come, as they inevitably do.
Of course, it is true that religious ritual turned rote can further obscure, rather than illuminate, the meaning that we seek. It is an ongoing challenge to infuse a discipline with genuine feeling and intention, what we call in Hebrew kavanah. Again, community helps: We are nourished by one another’s energy and inspired by one another’s spirit. We also are challenged to be present for others and not merely focused on our own navel-gazing and mountain-climbing spirituality.
Last year, an insightful bat mitzvah student taught me that God gave Moses a gift by not fully revealing his face. Moses would continue to live a life of “hide and seek,” a quest to catch glimpses of the divine. The human condition is one of perpetual seeking. Religion and spirituality can teach us to be at peace with the mystery, embracing it as we embrace one another. For we are fellow seekers looking for what is hidden but wants desperately to be found.
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