The Hidden and the Revealed

This week's Dvar Torah was adapted from one written by my mindfulness teacher Jordan Bendat-Appell, currently the Director of Camp Ramah, Canada.

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה' אֱלֹקינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ...

Hidden things are for YHVH our God, and revealed things are for us and our children...

This past summer I had the great joy of kayaking in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. As my kayak would slip over the dark waters of the lakes, I would often peer down into the water, keeping myself quite still, so that I might catch a glimpse of the life below.

Sometimes, when the light was just right, I was able to witness schools of fish darting around. Twice I saw large Muskies poised in the midst of a hunt, as they hid behind a column of water plants.

I was constantly intrigued by this feeling that there was a whole world taking place just beyond my vision. I could catch glimpses here and there, but mostly this vibrant world on the other side of the surface was hidden to me.

At times, I wished that I could put on a snorkel and enter into that dark world-- but mostly I was content to let myself glide over the mystery, with my eyes lifted towards the beauty of light falling upon trees and the water’s surface.

In this week's Torah portion, Nitzavim, we read this phrase as part of Moses' closing speech to the Israelites (Deut. 29:28):

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה' אֱלֹקינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ.

Hidden things are for YHVH our God, and revealed things are for us and our children…

As with all verses in the Torah, there are different ways of reading this verse--- Targum Yonatan understood it to mean that concealed sins are known to God, and will be punished by God, but revealed, overt sins are our human responsibility to punish.

Maimonides (cited by Bahya), on the other hand, understands nistarot and niglot (concealed things and revealed things) as a reference to the reasons behind the mitzvot-- i.e. only God knows the reasons for the mitzvot (making them concealed to us) whereas the mitzvot themselves are revealed to us.

Others have read it in an anti-mystical vein. One should not plumb the depths of Divine secrets, rather remain within the “revealed” world.

These understandings of what is meant by the words nistarot and niglot suggests a barrier between us and God, between what is possible to know and act upon, and what is impossible for human beings to access and respond to.

However, there is another way to read this verse; one that I find especially resonant within the context of our daily recitation of Psalm 27 throughout this Elul/Tishrei season leading up to the High Holy Days.

Psalm 27 says this:

ה כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה יַסְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ בְּצוּר יְרוֹמְמֵנִי: ו וְעַתָּה יָרוּם רֹאשִׁי עַל־אֹיְבַי סְבִיבוֹתַי...: ח לְךָ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ ה' אֲבַקֵּשׁ: ט אַל־תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי...

5. For God will keep me safe in [the Divine] Sukkah on the day of trouble. God will hide me under the cover (yastireini b’seter) of God’s tent. God will set me high upon a rock.
6. Now my head is held high above my enemies who surround me….
8. To You, my heart says, “Seek My face.” Your face, YHVH, will I seek.
9. Do not hide (al-tasteir) Your face from me…

The root of the word concealed/ nistarot-- ST’’R (סת׳׳ר)-- occurs three times in this Psalm, which underscores how important it is to the Psalmist to give voice to the human reality of facing an uncertain-- and even scary-- world.

The Psalmist calls out to God, asking to be concealed and hidden from his enemies and all that threatens him. In this case, concealment isn’t about Divine concealment; rather, it is the human being that is concealed for the sake of safety.

And it is from this place of Divine comfort and protection that the Psalmist then seeks to perceive the Divine countenance-- in essence, to reveal that which is concealed.

In other words, he is saying: please conceal me, but please reveal You!

Beginning with the second day of the month of Elul continuing through the end of Shmini Atzeret [thus encompassing the High Holy Day season], we hear the steady heartbeat of Psalm 27. It urges us to seek the unknowable mystery of God’s face.

Throughout this season, the heart says: “Conceal me, so that I can seek Your Face.”

This time is for plumbing the depths of our unique human experience. We are in a season where we ask the essential, difficult, and even unknowable questions that are so core to our being: What is the worth of my life? Who am I? What can I do differently? What is the ultimate nature of my human life?

In this context of mortality and infinity, when our parasha says, “Hidden things are for YHVH our God, and revealed things are for us and our children…,” we are asking to be concealed, to feel safe, so that we can seek the Divine face, the Divine mystery that continually recedes from our view.

However, the solidity of the idea that concealment and safety lead us closer to the Holy One in the midst of an ever-shifting world is difficult and counter-intuitive. It cannot be about finding a place where everything is okay and safe. Rather, it must be about rooting ourselves in a Divinely inspired confidence that we can be secure, and rooted in the midst of the shifting and chaotic experience of life.

Our verse, “Hidden things are for YHVH our God, and revealed things are for us and our children,” takes it one step further. The Psalmist urges us to remember that our spiritual inquiry is not only for the sake of knowing a secret that others might not know or even for exclusively the sake of knowing God. Rather, it is for the sake of “us and our children.”

We may seek the Divine countenance, we may pursue hidden truths in their great depths-- but only if we measure our “success” by how we are in relationship to our children, to our partners, neighbors, and communities. The inner work that we do during this season can easily be co-opted into a form that is only about me.

The power of our verse is that it reminds us that our primary spiritual practice takes place in the realm of families and community.

Perhaps this is why on Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we proclaim “Hayom harat olam/ Today is the birthday of the world,”we do not read the story of creation (a logical choice) but we read the story of a family struggling and striving with the messiness of relationship. What is revealed is that we are people who are inter-connected with others, responsible for our part in healing this broken world.

As we move into the final days of this year, in preparation for the Yamim Nora’im/ Days of Awe, let us explore the dynamics between that which is concealed and that which is revealed. Perhaps this is a time for taking refuge in a kind of innerness in which we seek the Divine presence-- but not to the exclusion of our full engagement in the work of healing and improving how we are in relationship with others.

Shabbat Shalom

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