Ira Bedzow
Ira Bedzow

Moral Peek-A-Boo

I always felt a little silly when playing peek-a-boo with my infant children, even when they would squeal with delight. I would imagine that they were laughing at me, not with me, thinking, “How could this guy believe that hiding his face would make the world around him disappear?”

But, of course, that is the point of the whole game, isn’t it? Infants do not have object permanence. They don’t understand how things could last when they look away. So, we teach them (or try to teach them) by playing into their ignorance. We ask them where they are, knowing that they’re right in front of us, and we laugh together at the absurdity that they could have in fact disappeared. We hope that they will eventually get the joke.

Yet even adults who take object permanence for granted still rely on versions of peek-a-boo in moments of weakness. They may close their eyes when making a choice about which they are ashamed or unsure, or they metaphorically close their eyes to how they acted and instead focus on the consequences of their actions. In each of these moments, they hide themselves from themselves and pretend that they hide themselves from the world. By trying to remove themselves from the chain of events, they attempt to avoid responsibility or evade what they must do next.

The first game of peek-a-boo ever played was between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam heard God moving about. He grew afraid and attempted to hide among the trees. Seeing Adam and Eve closing their eyes in fear, trying to avoid the permanence of what they had done, God called out to Adam and said, “Where are you?”

One cannot appreciate the gravity of this question – Where are you? – without understanding the depth of the response – Here I am. – said by the prophets when called upon by God.

God called Abraham by name before testing him with the binding of Isaac, to which he responded, “Here I am.” This is not the only time that Abraham responds this way, even during this same test. He responds with this expression when Isaac broaches the subject regarding the sacrifice they were supposed to be bringing. And he gives this refrain a third time when God finally stops him from killing his son.

Similarly, before Jacob realizes that it is time to leave Laban’s home and return home with his family to become the patriarch of the people of Israel, he is met in a dream by an angel of God who calls him by name. To which he answers, “Here I am.” Jacob later receives another call – Jacob! Jacob! (like the call received by his grandfather before being restrained in sacrificing his son). He is told not to fear going down to Egypt, for there is where his family will become a great nation. His response? “Here I am.”

It seems that calling by name once initiates the start of a transformative experience. Calling by name twice seems to mark an about-face – or at least a clarification of what the original goal was supposed to be.

Understanding the repetition of one’s name as gaining clarification of purpose (even when it means undoing what you thought was right), explains why God called from the burning bush, “Moses! Moses!” to which he answered, “Here I am.” It also explains why we call God’s name twice (Hashem Hashem) when asking for His mercy – the first alludes to God’s relationship to us before we sin and the second afterwards. We realize that even when we know that God is a zealous God, we ask for an about-face so that He will treat us differently than we should expect.

“Here I am” is therefore never without context. It is never simply about where one stands. Rather, it is about where one situates himself or herself on the journey. Even when that journey takes an unexpected turn. And it is always anchored both by the person who is present and by the undertaking which one is about to accept. As Rashi paraphrases the Midrash, “Such is the answer of the pious: it is an expression of humility and readiness.” Humility to consider when one may be going in the wrong direction. Readiness to head to where one is destined to go.

That is why the question that God asks Adam is so telling. Both God and Adam knew where he was physically. God knew where Adam was psychologically, though Adam was not yet aware. Like a child who closes his eyes, believing that lack of vision speaks not to the inability to see but rather to be seen, Adam’s fear hid him from himself as much as he hoped his hiding would conceal him from God. He tried to separate himself from the relationships that gave context to his life and the purpose that would lead him to fulfillment. He attempted to escape from being present.

God’s question, “Where are you?” allows Adam to see for himself that escape is not possible. That one cannot hide from oneself.  That the best course of action is to say, “Here I am!”

About the Author
Ira Bedzow, Ph.D. is the Director of the MirYam Institute Project in International Ethics and Leadership and Head of the Unit of the International Chair in Bioethics (World Medical Association Cooperation Centre) at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.
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