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Exiled from our souls

When the Spanish fleet conquered Mexico in the 16th century, Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva was appointed governor of the New Kingdom of Leon. In his jurisdiction were the towns of Leon, Neuvo Almaden and Monterrey, and thousands upon thousands of acres of silver mines. He was, to put it mildly, a player in the Spanish Empire.

When he was “on-stage,” in the arena of power and politics, to his colleagues and superiors in the Spanish government, Carvajal was a Catholic and the son of a Catholic, but “backstage,” he was a Jew.

When he built his home in Leon, there was a kitchen, off which there was a pantry. Off of that pantry there was a hidden room, with a door hidden behind shelves and behind that room was yet another room; in that room, he and his wife and sisters would gather on Friday nights to light Shabbat candles and recite psalms. Despite having converted to Catholicism by the sword during the Inquisition, Carvajal remained a Jew practicing and teaching Torah in secret.

The people with whom Carvajal played games of power never knew that he was a Jew. But he knew.

This dynamic of “back-stage” and “on-stage” living isn’t unique to settings of political oppression; we all have on-stage and backstage personas. For most of us, these aren’t tremendous distortions or falsehoods, like presenting credentials saying we are a doctor or a police officer when we aren’t. We engage in a more subtle exaggeration of who we are and how we want other people to perceive us. We too manage our “on-stage” persona.

If you’ve ever been at home in sweats and a tee-shirt and thought “I think I need to put on something a little nicer to go out,” you know what I’m talking about. Alternately, if you live in a place like my hometown of Beacon, NY, you might know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever hidden the Oreos and put out the kale chips when friends come over.

We present ourselves with the books we read, the food we eat, the places we visit. Most of all, we present ourselves with the stories we tell – about our lives, about our friends, about our families.

For instance, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. When he died in 1972, the books on his bed stand were The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s masterpiece on the Vietnam War and the Keter Shem Tov, a classic of hasidic literature.

Heschel was in no way a fraud – he really was a major religious thinker about the War in Vietnam, and he really was a Hasid and the scion of a hasidic dynasty. But when he died, he was reading Newsweek magazine. That’s part of who he really was too. However, The Best and the Brightest and the Keter Shem Tov were rearranged by his loving wife Sylvia, who knew the public performance of “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel” demanded certain things, and it would in some way diminish his legacy if the performance was dropped.

Now, in the scope of things, a widow rearranging the presentation of books as a subtle way of honoring her husband the theologian is small, almost trivial. Other rearrangements, however, can be quite significant.

Gay and lesbian people, for instance, manage their presentations in ways that have deep lessons for all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation.

Most of the time, even now, most people assume that the other people they meet are straight. Coming out of the closet means rupturing that assumption, sometimes at great cost. Rabbi Sharon Klienbaum is the rabbi of Congregation Bet Simchat Torah, one of the oldest and largest gay and lesbian synagogues in the country. She writes in the introduction to her community’s siddur that “In 1981, some members of CBST used pseudonyms in the synagogue. All CBST mailings arrived at members’ homes without an identifying return address… over time though, the synagogue became the place where these Jews were out of the closet. All else follows from this starting point. Out in the world, we may have to pretend. Here we can proudly assert that we are gay.”

The cost of being in the closet – about our sexuality, our religion or anything else — is that all human relations – from the most mundane to the most intimate have an element of misdirection and deception. Martin Buber wrote “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” To be in the closet about who we are means that experience of the holy, which can only come from that place of authenticity, cannot be felt.

All else follows from this starting point. There are times, there are places, where we may have to hide who we are. True experience of the Divine however, can only happen from a place of authenticity, of honesty.

It is hard – even impossible — to live always in that place of honesty. It’s hard because we fear the self who lives in that real place isn’t good enough. We fear we won’t get the love or respect or the simple physical safety we want if we are transparent about who we are.

Sadly, that fear is often – but not always – justified, so we present ourselves as smart or skilled or talented or whatever it is we think will make us worthy of the respect and love of the people around us. We present ourselves as strong when it’s called for, sophisticated when it’s called for, straight when it’s called for, Catholic when it’s called for. We present the version of ourselves that we think is worthy of being loved, and then live in fear that our fraudulence will be exposed.

Jane Tompkins, a widely respected professor of English Literature at Duke University wrote that after many years of teaching, she realized that her obsessions as a teacher were a) to show the students how smart [she] was, b) to show them how knowledgeable [she] was, and c) to show them how well-prepared [she] was for class.

She writes, “I had been putting on a performance whose true goal was… to perform before them in such a way that they would have a good opinion of me… How did it come to be that my main goal as a teacher turned out to be a good performance? …The main component is fear. Fear is the driving force behind the performance. Fear of being shown up for what I’m afraid I am: a fraud, stupid, ignorant… a weakling, someone who can’t cut the mustard.”

Tompkin’s fear was that she was someone who isn’t worthy of being respected for who she is.

This isn’t just true for teachers – this is true for everyone. We all have a self that we present to the world and with that self comes the fear that our presented self will be revealed as fraudulent. I know this has been true for me.

When I was in seminary, I was a fairly successful rabbinical student. I won awards, I was invited to speak places and generally enjoyed the respect of my peers and teachers. While many things came easily to me, I struggled tremendously to learn proper nusach, proper trope – the music that goes to the words of liturgy and Torah reading. Now I can laugh about it, but I certainly couldn’t always.

Back about twenty years ago, I interned at a synagogue in Philadelphia, and it was there that I was going to layn for the first time. I never had a bar mitzvah, never learned to layn as a child, so this was the first time I would be reading publicly.

Characteristically, I signed up to do the entire layning, not just one part of it, and I practiced for months to prepare. The Hebrew wasn’t a problem, but no matter how much time I poured into learning, I couldn’t seem to match the proper musical notes to the words. I’d jump up when I should jump doooooown, and I could never seem to get the words and the music to match up the way they were supposed to.

On Sunday night, the week before I was supposed to layn, I finally realized that I was not going to be able to do everything that I set out to do; in fact, I probably wouldn’t even be able to do half of it, and that half not very well. When I realized that, I wept. I sobbed and cried like I had few times before or since. There was a lot in those tears, but most of all, there was the fear that I would be revealed for the fraud that I thought I was.

I was a smart and well respected rabbinical student, and here I was, seemingly incapable of doing something that every 13 year old American Jew manages to pull off. I was going to be exposed as a fraud.

Of course, I’m hardly the first person to be afraid of being exposed as a fraud. The first person was, in fact, the first person.

Way back in the beginning, the serpent says to Adam and Eve, “Eat this fruit and you will be like God.” They eat, they feel shame and they then try to hide from God. It’s then, as they are hiding behind the trees, that God calls out to them Ayeka – where are you?

Obviously, God is not looking for geographical information. God is not asking “What are your GPS coordinates,” but “Where are you at? What is up with you? Why did you eat from that tree?!”

The problem of course, is that Adam didn’t know where he was at.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the land of Israel writes in the third volume of Orot HaKodesh about this as follows:

I am in exile.
אני בתוך הגולה.

The sin of the first human being, which estranged him from his true self, was that he turned to the advice of the snake, losing himself.
חטא אדם הראשון, שנתנכר לעצמיותו שפנה לדעתו של נחש, ואבד את עצמו

He did not know how to clearly answer the question “Ayeka?” because he did not know himself.
לא ידע להשיב תשובה ברורה על שאלת איכה, מפני שלא ידע נפשו,

He lost touch with his true “I-ness”, his truest self.
מפני שהאניות האמיתית נאבדה ממנו.

We must seek our inner selves. When we seek, we will find.
את האני שלנו נבקש, את עצמנו נבקש ונמצא

Adam’s sin was that he wasn’t curious about who he was – a human; instead, he was fearful about what he wasn’t – a God.

God asked Ayekah, and Adam couldn’t answer the question. Instead, he dissembled, he blamed Eve, he tried to blame God. Put simply, he was in denial about the fact that he was merely a human being. So he hid from his fears, he hid from God, he hid from himself. He couldn’t see that he was worthy of being loved for who he was – a human being, not the God he thought he needed to be.

Some generations later, God asks someone else where he is at, and he finally gets an answer with integrity. As we hear in the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashona, God asks Abraham where he’s at, and Abraham answers “Hineni,” meaning “I am fully present – I am aware and integrated and I am here now.” That heneni, that answer, is the cornerstone of Judaism.

Not for nothing do we refer not to Adam, but Abraham as Avraham Avinu – Abraham our father. Integrity, not mere existence, is the cornerstone of a real religious life.

In a very real sense, Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden because they couldn’t answer the question of who they were with integrity. Rav Kook felt he was in exile because he could not say who he was with integrity.

And on that night when I crashed up against my musical limitations, I too was in exile from part of myself, the part that wasn’t as much of a hot shot as I liked to see myself. When my fear came out, when I realized that my backstage was going to have to be a little bit more front stage, I was lucky enough to have someone tell me that I deserved to be loved for who I was, my lack of musical talent and other flaws notwithstanding. I was worthy of being loved for who I really was – not for who I thought I needed to be.

So too with all of us. We are all worthy of being loved for who we are, not for who we think we are supposed to be.

The poet May Sarton writes:

Now I become myself. It’s taken
time, many years and places
I have been dissolved and shaken
worn other people’s faces
Now I become myself.

Becoming ourselves, recognizing the aspects of ourselves that are created in the image of the Divine, is the work of a lifetime. It is the hardest thing to become oneself, to let the Divinity at our core shine out. It is the hardest thing to search our souls with honesty and compassion, growing where we need to grow and accepting ourselves as worthy for who we are.

It’s only by claiming our true selves – our flawed, inconsistent, beautiful selves – that we can live a life of integrity. We can and should grow and develop as we move through life. But we can only enter real relationships – not masquerades, but real relationships – as the people we are, not the people we wish we were. Real relationships — with God, with ourselves and with anyone – can only come from a place of heneni – a place of integrity and presence.

Rav Heschel – you know, the guy who read Newsweek – said that “Hypocrisy, not heresy, is the cause of spiritual decay.” There will always be a gap between our onstage selves and backstage selves, between the self we wish we were and the self we acknowledge ourselves to be. We will always have fears that spring from the gap between our onstage self and our off stage self, and more often than not, that gap will be where we have spiritual work to do.

There may even be times – as there were for Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva and for millions of gay and lesbian Americans – where we need to hide our backstage self for our own safety.

But not all the time. We will always have our fears, but we don’t have to be our fears. There are other places in our inner landscapes from which we can speak and act.

On Rosh Hashanah and every day, the Holy One ask us Ayekah – to acknowledge and name where we are at.

Today – and every day – is the day we can do teshuva and return to who we are in order to answer that question and enter our relationships, with ourselves, with our friends and family and with God with integrity.

May this be a year of peace and integrity for all of us. Shana Tova.

About the Author
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, by Hudson Valley Magazine as a Person to Watch and by Newsweek as "a rabbi to watch." He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. ​ Rabbi Brent is a member of the faculty at Pardes North America and has been the rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance since 2010; prior to that, he served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and was the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Rabbi Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a master's degree in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College, and their two children.
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