Hide and Seek: When and How Our Students Might Find God in Their Lives

Daniel Siegel

For the students, this story was disarming in that the God they were encountering here was not the biblically based all-powerful, controlling and commanding God whose presence is always evident in the world, which they could and did readily reject as not consonant with their reality and dissonant with their sensibilities. Moreover, the biblical conception of “hastarat panim” (the Hiding of God’s face), whereby God punitively abandons His people to suffering and misfortune (Devarim 31:17-18), an unsatisfying resolution for most of them, whether proposed within the biblical context or that of the Holocaust, was being inverted in this chasidic story. God here is crying in His hidden state, suffering in being abandoned by and lost to His people (cf. be-mistarim tivkeh nafshi, “My being will weep in hiding,” Jeremiah 13:17). Thus, this story’s message was empowering to the students, as its perception of God, whose roots also lie within our biblical tradition, was calling upon them to be partners and active agents in welcoming the presence of God in our world.

In the course of exploring this notion of actively seeking God, a group of high school students and I discovered rich insights embedded in two biblical commands.

Korbani Lachmi Le-ishai

Entering Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the “Ten Days of Returning” leading into Yom Kippur, the “Day of At-one-ment,” we turned our attention to the practice of korbani lachmi le-ishai, the biblical command to bring “My sacrifice, My food, offered through My fires.” Cognizant of the sacrificial service of the Temple, we now together sought to realize the chasidic attunement of these words: “My sacrifice/coming close to Me [korban, sacrifice, being of the root word “to draw close”], is through offering My food to My people [reading “ishai,” My fires as plural for ish, My people]” (Pinchas of Korets).

Joining our larger community in Project Isaiah (“This is the fast I desire … share your bread with the hungry,” Isaiah 58), our school, students and families, collected and distributed food items to local food banks. Still, understanding that it is in the giving of ourselves that we truly sustain another, our students created and bagged individual lunches which we personally distributed to hundreds of homeless and hungry individuals on our city’s eastside. On these streets and in a downtown soup kitchen, where they made and served hot dinners, our students were conscious of nourishing the souls of the needy no less than their bodies. Then, on Sukkot, we realized the often neglected words that follow “share your bread with the hungry”: “and bring the downtrodden poor into your home.”

Making and sharing a sukkah meal with the homeless of our community was a transformative experience for our students. The Zohar speaks of the ushpizin, supernal guests, enjoying the divine light which resides in our sukkah, and only afterwards the portion which otherwise would have been theirs is sent to the poor (Emor 103a). For our students it was the seven very human “homeless” individuals, whose presence within our sukkah granted them an understanding of the temporality of abode, the fragility of life and the strength of community, that served as the enlightening source of the Shekhinah/divine among them.

As the students and I prepared for our sukkah dinner, we had considered the import of Isaiah’s words, prior to his beseeching us to share our bread with the hungry and to bring the needy into our home: “To be sure, they seek (yidroshun) Me daily … They are eager for the nearness (kirvat) of God.” To deepen our understanding of this prophet’s teaching, we turned to similar language found in the poet Yehudah Halevi (“Yah Ana Emtsa’akha”): “I sought (darashti) Your nearness (kirvatkha) … but only when I emerged to welcome You did I find You welcoming me.” These words helped express what our students had themselves experienced in our shared sukkah: God comes out of hiding only when we do.

“Through tsedek [understood by our rabbis as tsedakah infused with lovingkindness] do I see Your face” (Psalms 17:15) was more deeply understood by us in the sukkah that night. Together, we had revisited the biblical narrative in which we learn that it is only when Ya’akov is first able to see his brother beyond his self-interests does he exclaim, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (Bereishit 33:10). Considering anew hastarat panim through the living text of practice, our students discovered that it is we who make for the disclosing (and hiding) of God’s face.

Several days following our sukkah dinner, with time given for personal reflection and sharing, I met with our students in an effort to ground what we had discovered within a text we utilize daily in seeking to connect with God, the siddur.

We read together the following rabbinic passage appearing in our siddur, at the beginning of the morning service (Siddur Sim Shalom).

Once Rabbi Yehoshua, following his teacher Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, came upon the Temple ruins and said, “Woe to us, the place through which Israel gained at-one-ment (through animal sacrifice) lies in ruins.” To which Rabban Yochanan replied, “My son, do not be grieved. For us, there is another way of at-one-ment. What is it? Lovingkindness (chesed). For, it is said (Hoshea 6:6), ‘I desire lovingkindness not sacrifice (zevach).’” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 11a)

The students soon noticed that they were encountering here the very understanding of karbani lachmi le-ishai that had resonated with them and whose practice brought personal meaning and an experiencing of the divine into their lives. They found that the siddur, which they felt did not succeed in bringing them close to God, was a primer in how we may effectively repair our breaches with and estrangement from God. In discussing lehitpallel, to pray, as being a reflexive verb, denoting entering into judgment of oneself, we considered how the siddur may serve as a means, rather than an end, in challenging us to experience God in a world of relationship, described within but found beyond its pages.

As a guiding example, we explored the siddur passages immediately following the quoted words of God, “I desire lovingkindness not sacrifice,” which consists of biblical and rabbinic texts as to how we, like God, may bring lovingkindness into our world. The siddur’s preceding morning blessings, Birkhot Hashachar, which our students held to be untruths, which they could not in good conscience recite (“Praised are You, Lord our God, who clothes the naked … who releases the bound … who raises the downtrodden”), were now seen as an urgent call for them to effect the presence of this God in our world (much as they had recently done) rather than lamenting the absence of the same. Prayer, they glimpsed, seeks to propel us (and God) beyond the “limits” of what is to the possibilities of what might be.

Kol Ha-Neshamah Tehallel Yah

We next explored how each of us is central to the praise and presence of God in a way that the students welcomed but had not imagined. Returning to the siddur, we studied the section Pesukei De-zimra (verses of song), which includes the last five psalms from Tehillim, all beginning and ending with the word Halleluyah. These Psalms end with the summative statement, Kol ha-neshamah tehallel Yah, halleluyah, “Let all that breathes praise the Lord, Halleluyah.” The students began to sing these commonly chanted lines joyously. But, in our taking into account that these words constituted a command, a bit of anger and a sense of betrayal set in. “We weren’t told this!” “How can we be commanded to praise God? That’s not true praise.” Worse yet, this was, they felt, “sort of a brainwashing,” being called upon to say it twice in the liturgy.

We took a breath and then considered a biblical passage (Bereishit 28:16) they had already studied but would now encounter anew. “And Ya’akov awoke from his sleep and said: Surely, the Lord is present in this place, but I did not know (anokhi lo yadati) … and he called the place the House of God.” As pointed out by the chasidic tradition, the inclusion of anokhi, I, can lead us to read the text as “but I, I did not know.” Thus, this passage might be understood to be telling us that Ya’akov could not come to know God inasmuch as he had not come to know himself (anokhi signifying both “God” and “I” in the Jewish tradition—see Shmot 20:2).

The students began to understand that before them was the dissembling Ya’akov, who, having presented himself as his twin brother, to gain the love (blessing) of his father, was now fleeing from his family as he had been fleeing from himself. He was asleep to God, they were now discovering, because he was hiding from himself. By awakening to himself, he was awakening to the presence of God.

We came back to the troubling command Halleluyah, “Praise the Lord,” via a bridge text that appears at the very start of this Halleluyah section in Pesukei De-zimrah: Ahallelah Adonai bechayyai / Azamrah l’Elohai be-odi (Psalm 146). The students’ newfound understanding of Ya’akov’s divine/self-revelation now brought them to an insightful appreciation of these words: “I will praise the Lord through my life, I will sing to my God with all of my being.” Our unique lives are the life and song of God, which only we can bring into the world. In an expression of discovery, and most appropriately, a student exclaimed, “Oh, my God!”

Halleluyah now granted the students a more welcoming though no less challenging perspective. We are commanded to discover and realize our unique lives, for therein lies our greatest and fullest praise of God. Only in bringing our unique selves to the center of our being can we truly see those who have been marginalized and hidden from us, the “homeless,” the “elderly,” the “poor” and God.

Returning to the Baal Shem Tov’s story of the hidden God which we are called upon to find, the students understood that it is no accident that the one representing the hidden God is called Yechiel, Live God! For, in seeking Him, we give God life. At the same time, the students appreciated that seeking God, in being our unique selves, gives us life; as the prophetic voice (Amos 5:4) calls to us, “Seek Me and live” (Dirshuni vichyu).

Our mystical tradition (Tikkunei Zohar 91b) reminds us, Leit atar panui minei, nothing is devoid of God. To the degree that students are empowered to authentically explore and realize meaningful relationships within the wider world as well as the growth and discovery of self, they bring God out of hiding. As educators, engaging our students in Jewish learning and living, we are asked to challenge them to make their lives, and that of others, a God-revealing and God-experiencing journey.

Daniel Siegel is the head of Jewish life at the Emanuel School in Sydney, Australia. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015