Playing Hide and Seek on Yom Kippur

Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, describes the High Holidays as a game of hide and seek. It feels like God is hidden, so we seek.  We try to hide, and God finds us.

In a usual year, as the sun sets, we gather in crowded sanctuaries to sing the Kol Nidre prayer whose words tells us we cannot hide from our misguided behavior..  Moreover, the Viddui (Confessional prayer), recited repeatedly throughout the day and in the plural, says we are one collective. Our successes are one another’s successes, and our failures also shared with one another. The same prayers speaks of God as צופה נסתרות, יודע מחשבות Knower of thoughts, Gazer into secrets and הלא כל הנסתרות והנגלות אתה יודע You indeed know all, both the hidden and the revealed.  There is no hiding nor holding secrets.

This year, however, we sit alone in our homes, distanced from each other, separated from community.  How much easier it is to hide, to hold secrets that might not be shared. And, we may think we can better guarding our secrets.  After all, who will see us? We can simply tune out, attend a service that is livestreaming where none of the attendees are visible, or even attend via Zoom but turn off the video. So, who will know if we are holding secrets? Who will care if we are really connected?

We know the truth. Not all secrets are bad, and none of us would really want full transparency.  Sometimes secrets help protect, sometimes they help celebrate a surprise, or build trust.  At the same time, psychologists remind us that keeping secrets is ultimately destructive and harmful, using excess energy.

Judaism offers an anecdote to avoid the unhealthy place and space of secrets. There is an ancient blessing described in the Talmud (see Berakhot 57-58 for full references) which blesses God as One who knows the mysteries of the universe and the most veiled secrets each of us holds. Whether alone or in a large crowd, nothing is hidden and no secret kept from God’s sight. Here are the words of the blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם חכם הרזים
Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, knower of secrets.

At first glance, the Talmud tells us that this blessing is said when 600,000 people come together (reminiscent of the number of people that were part of the census at the beginning of the biblical book of Numbers) as a way of stressing that God sees an entire nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other and God knows what is in each of their hearts.

Yet, there is a powerful narrative that follows that extends this message more deeply.  Three Rabbis – Rav Pappa, Rav Huna, and Rave Yehoshua were once walking along the road.  They ran into Rav Hanina.  They exchange blessings for encountering wisdom and the blessing traditionally said when people have not seen one another for a long period of time.  Rav Hanina, however, adds an additional blessing, this same blessing above usually reserved for encountering the multitudes. Questioned by his colleagues about why he would recite this blessing, Rav Hanina tells them “In my eyes, each of you is like six hundred thousand people.”

Rav Hanina’s message is one for us today. I see you.  You are important, You are worthy.  You are unique. You are the manifestation of multitudes and equivalent in stature and import. You cannot hide and there are still no secrets.

The amazing thing about being seen is that it is not just about big brother or big sister watching to account for your sins. Whether in solitude, watching on livestream, on Zoom video, or even having turned off your video to avoid being seen, know that you are not alone.  You are seen.  God sees you, your loved ones see you, your rabbi sees you, your community sees you. Being seen means you are powerful, you are worthy, you matter.  And, the world knows it and celebrates your uniqueness.  Maybe, just maybe, knowing this, you will feel less alone, a bit less isolated, a bit more loved When you see yourself as others see you, self-love and self-worth become guiding posts to living well and finding meaning.

In a time when the world is full of so much pain, I cannot think of a better way to stand together on Yom Kippur.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם חכם הרזים
Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, knower of secrets.


About the Author
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which trains rabbis who go on to lead and re-invent Jewish institutions for every stage of life and strengthen Jewish living for people of all ages. Rabbi Peretz has experience as a pulpit rabbi and serves as a speaker and scholar-in-residence in communities around the world. She holds an MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America. Her work has been published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and on the Ziegler’s Today’s Torah, and she has contributed chapters to books on Jewish living.
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