We all have parts of our past and ourselves that are difficult to embrace, or that we would like to hide and forget. Those things that seem shameful to us. In a society in which oversharing is the norm, it is perhaps ironic, certainly saddening, that so many of us feel the need to hide things away. To keep them under the cover of darkness. We imagine that if we keep them hidden, in warehouses of our spirit – they won’t bother us or embarrass us. We don’t tell our closest friends, we don’t even let ourselves dwell on them, as if hiding them away would erase them.
And along comes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which say, “You know those difficult parts of your past, those things that you are afraid to talk about or even think about? We are going to spend ten days confronting them head on. We are going to talk about them to our closest friends and relatives. We are going to read about them in the synagogue. We are going to name them out loud. Heck we are going to put them to music and sing them over and over again. It is not like Shabbat when we try to create a tranquil atmosphere.
For the Days of Awe our rabbis took some of the most difficult narratives of our sacred texts and put them in our prayer book for an occasion when everyone would hear them, be disquieted, and be forced to wrestle with them. It would have been much easier, much more comfortable to read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham discarding a child to die in the wilderness – some quiet Shabbat in July when everyone is at the beach or Shemini Atzeret. But our tradition requires that we read them today, when thousands are here, at least at Chizuk Amuno.
In Hebrew to hide is le hastir, from the root satar which means not only to hide, but also to destroy, to upset. Our Judaism tells us that hiding things away creates a tempest which will eventually, inevitably cast our lives into disarray, if not destroy something inside of us. Those parts of our past we want to hide, the financial troubles, marital infidelities, children born of outside relationships, troubled relationships, career uncertainties, a non-traditional family structure.
I want to tell you a story about friends of the family. This was more than a decade ago and at the time they were in their early 60’s. After not having seen them for a while I asked how they were and how their grown kids were. They told me that everyone was fine and they wanted me to know that their daughter was gay. Okay I said. How are you with that? Fine now, they said. But for years after she told us we kept it a secret. We didn’t tell any of our friends. We were worried about the consequences for her and for us if we told people. And so she said, we hid for years. Until, we decided that hiding was doing more harm than good. And once we began to reveal to people that she was gay it was like our whole life opened up and changed. We have this wonderful open relationship with our daughter and her partner. Now we even have grandchildren from her and it has made our lives so much richer.
Our practice of confronting the hidden on these days is a manifestation of what we read in the Torah on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, ha nistarot l’adonai eloheinu ve ha niglot lanu u’levaneinu, Hidden things concern the Lord our God but revealed things are for us and our children. (Deuteronomy 29:28) What we must do is move things from the hidden to the revealed so that we can confront them, deal with them, live with them.
Look what has been hidden and revealed in our national lives this year. Baltimore is a paradigm of this. Early one summer morning in August four confederate monuments were removed under cover of darkness. Contractors with cranes protected by police officers, carried out the orders of Mayor Catherine Pugh by lifting the monuments from their pedestals, rolling them away on flatbed trucks, and hiding them in warehouses. (NYT “Baltimore Mayor Had Statues Removed in Best Interest of My City,” August 16, 2017.) She was responding to violent clashes in Charlottesville Virginia which were spurred on by the removal of a similar monument. While we slept peacefully in our homes, our city secreted away part of our past.
By the time the sun rose on Wednesday August 16 and we woke from our peaceful slumber, our city had been altered. On the one hand there was a sense of relief that a potential powder keg had been diffused quickly and quietly. Baltimore is so beleaguered, so troubled. We hardly need another contentious issue tied to race to rear its head in our city. But on the other hand, we know that hiding things away does not obliterate them nor does it diminish their power.
Imagine if Mayor Pugh had asked her top advisors to a meeting and said, “We have this very difficult part of our city’s and our nation’s past. Most of the time we can walk by it, ignore it and not even have to deal with what it meant and what it continues to mean to us. What should we do with it?” Now imagine that you are being asked that very question about the things that are hidden in your own life.
Think back to the family friends I told you about earlier. They had an extraordinarily positive experience not only because of their willingness to reveal what they had been hiding but also because when they finally chose to reveal it they were met with compassion. There is a heavy responsibility on the side of those to whom we reveal these difficult things to hear them and accept them with compassion. That should be but is not always the norm. Far too often we react with judgment rather than compassion. If we had a more compassionate and understanding world Mayor Pugh would not have had to remove the monuments under cover of darkness.
On Yom Kippur afternoon we hear the tale of Jonah who hides himself away in the bowels of a ship to avoid confronting those things he cannot bear to reveal. But the more he hides, the more the waters rebel against him. We recognize the tempest that befalls Jonah. The tempest that tosses us as we wrestle with the things that we’d prefer to keep hidden. Our tradition has us read Jonah in part because the hiding is an object lesson in how NOT to behave. All hiding gets us is hurricanes and an eternity in the belly of a whale. It is not until the last verse of the book that Jonah finally learns to have compassion for human beings instead of judging them.
Ha nistarot l’adonai ve ha niglot lanu u levaneinu, those things that we hide even from God will inevitably be revealed to us and eventually to our children. They become the inheritors of what we hide and the disarray that the hiding leaves. Think of your own family of origin, the things that were not spoken about – family rifts, financial troubles, and illness. Yom Kippur is an opportunity to not miss the opportunity. To take possession of all of you: the tragedies, the failures, the disappointments and also the joys, triumphs and successes.
It is what we model here in the synagogue. We read not only our people’s difficult history and most difficult texts but also our own personal sins out loud on the most public day in the most public place. The tradition presents is as a tiered process: if we are willing to tell someone we trust and love, now is the time. If we’re not, at least we tell it to God so we can hear ourselves and know that God “understands” and supports our desire to change. And if neither of those, if we find ourselves in a situation where revealing does more harm than good, then we tell ourselves so we can still feel authentic.
The social scientists who study habit formation and how we make or break habits say that we should pay special attention to any habit that we try to hide. (Gretchen Rubin, “Secret of Adulthood: Pay Careful Attention to Anything You Try to Hide, April 14, 2014). The desire to prevent family or co-workers from acting as witnesses – from seeing what’s on our computer screens or knowing how much time or money is spent on a hobby – shows that we are perfectly aware of how damaging our behavior is and that we believe in some way, our actions don’t reflect our values.
That is at the heart of Yom Kippur – the synchronizing of our words and our hearts. One way to change a difficult past is to force it out into public view. For habits that might mean secret smoking, secret shopping, secretly contacting an ex on social media, secret eating. For hard things in our lives we need to pay careful attention to the things we try to hide so we learn something about ourselves. Sometimes it is helpful and healthy to keep something hidden – most often it’s not. In either case, it’s useful to notice what we’re trying to hide and to know why.
This process in which we engage over these Days of Awe is really an exercise in clarifying our beliefs and examining the ways in which we are or are not living up to them – we openly and bravely confront the most difficult in ourselves, so that we can more clearly understand ourselves, our values, and be better able to alter our actions to be in line with those values.
We say a lot of words over these three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The words though humbling, frightening or difficult are not in themselves the end goal. The end goal is synchronizing our words and our hearts. We all have something. None of us go through our lives without accumulating stuff – tragedies, disappointments, failures. It is what it means to be human. What it means to be Jewish is to move things from the hidden to the revealed and embrace the wholeness of who we are.
This is a difficult task. Any of us who have wrestled with something we’ve hidden know how difficult it is – difficult to continue to hide it, and difficult to reveal it. Our tradition has faith in us that we are up to the task. It has faith that we are people of truthfulness, of integrity. That’s who we are today, that’s who we should be every day.
Rabbi Wechsler has touched the lives of many members of our community through her intellect, warmth, compassion and commitment to the ideals of Conservative Judaism. As the first woman to serve as rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, her impact and accomplishments are demonstrated in our successful b’nei mitzvah, adult learning programs, gemilut hasadim efforts, and many learning and life cycle experiences. Her communal work includes service on the Executive Committee of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Grant Review Committee for the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated, and the Teacher Certification group of the Center for Jewish Education. She has published sermons and opinion articles in The American Rabbi, The Orchard, and the New York Jewish Week. Debi received her rabbinic ordination, as well as an M.A., from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where she also served on the Board of Overseers of the Rabbinical School.