Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
What was the first game you ever played? Do you recall? Likely it was peek-a-boo. The mild tension of the disappearing face and then, the thrill of its return. The temporary sense of loss, to be replaced by the joy of re-union. How universal is this game- how it delights the youngest, the baby and the adult to disappear and reappear. How I loved playing this game with my children, and when they got older, how they loved to hide from me, under a blanket- a big lump in the bed- Where are they? Where are my children? How they would giggle thinking I did not see them.
It is through this kind of play that infants and children develop a sense of trust; trust in the relationship and trust in the world, that this sense of connection, while challenged through the temporary disappearance of the beloved one, is fundamentally stable and reliable.
How this dance of separation and connection is played out as we grow.
Hide n’ Seek expands the theme only now we can play this game with our whole bodies and each player is empowered to be either the hidden one or to be the seeker. The one who hides is empowered by the initial sense of control and the quest to find the best hiding place, but if the place is too hidden, the game is for naught and there will be no thrill for the one who is seeking, and even too, no thrill for the one who cannot be found.
Do we not all long to be found?
Do we not all hide in some ways?
We have just finished the holiday of Purim in which we read the Megillah of Esther. In the story, Esther, whose name means hidden, hides her true identity from the King until just the moment when her revelation of who she truly is will bring salvation to her people. It is through her hiding that revelation becomes possible.
Chazal- our Rabbinic tradition teaches that the Great Mystery that lies hidden in this story is the hand of God; the way in which Divine providence seems to unfold, turning the destiny of the characters on its head. And so we celebrate by wearing masks, taking on a new character while also hiding some aspect of ourselves.
But do we not all long to be found, to be seen, truly seen?
In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tissa, Moses is on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and the people below become agitated. Moses has been hiding and it seems as if he is not going to return. The people approach Aaron and say: Come make us a god who will go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt; we do not know what has happened to him.
Their anxiety over Moses’ absence has hit a peak. They have not yet developed enough trust to feel secure that Moses will return. They are not able to participate in this very long and drawn out game of peek-a-boo without falling to pieces. It seems the rules have changed and Moses has disappeared into the clouds never to return. They respond by confronting Moses’ brother Aaron and ask for at least, a representation of Moses or a god, so as to appease their fears of abandonment and create some sense of security.
In our story God responds with great anger and a desire to destroy the people. For after all, didn’t God just shed the Divine mask, revealing God’s self on Mt. Sinai to the people through the sound of a heavenly shofar, thunder, lightning and utterance of the 10 commandments? Yes- And the people were overwhelmed by this revelation. They called out to Moses at the time, “ You speak to us, and we will obey, but don’t let God speak to us lest we die.” (Ex. 20:16)
In witnessing the awesome power of God unmasked, so to speak, the people became overwhelmed with fear and demanded to be sheltered from God’s Presence. They request a mediator. It appears that God and the people are struggling to discover how the Divine and the Human can create and maintain a safe and reliable relationship.
Are there times when we need to restrict how much we reveal to others to preserve a relationship? Are there times when we need to wear a mask to serve a greater purpose?
This theme of moderating how much to expose winds its way through this Torah portion. Moses spends another 40 days on the mountain with God in which, like an excellent family therapist, he manages to help God access forgiveness for the people. When he returns to the people, the Torah records that Moses’ face was “radiant with light and the people shrank back from him.” ( Ex. 34:30) “And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a mask over his face. and whenever Moses went to speak with God he would remove the mask, and when he would finish relating to the Israelites all of God’s instructions, then he would put the mask back over his face. (34:33-35)
What have I learned from peek-a-boo, from Esther, the Israelites and Moses?
That to be missing from the story does not mean gone; that hiding is not the same as absent.
That the one who is hidden longs to be found.
That we all long to be found, to be seen, though, sometimes wearing a mask temporarily is necessary for preserving a relationship.
That the process of hiding and revealing builds trust over time.
And that as long as I continue to seek, as long as I play the game, I remain connected.
This is my prayer: May my eyes be open to the myriad ways that God hides in this world. May my growing trust in people allow me to reveal my most authentic self. May I know when to constrict my self, leaving room for others to reveal themselves. When faced with a person in hiding, may my compassion help me to continue to seek their true self.
May this be a joyful process!
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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