Today is December 10, 2019 -

Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

בית ישראל" – בית הכנסת המסורתי בנתניה"

19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345
Email: office@betisrael.org

Rosh Hashana 5777 (September 2016) – Sermon – Day I

Hide and Seek, Lost and Found

Aiton Birnbaum

You’ve all heard of Game Theory: in psychology we have famous books like “Games People Play” about repeated patterns of interaction in human relationships; you know that actors on the stage are called players, they play the various parts in the play, and you know that Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage” – so it’s no great leap to look at life itself as a game. There’s a board game called “Life” – you travel around the board going through stages of birth, early childhood, school-age, teen years, young adulthood, and then middle and later adulthood – the cycle of life, with its various changes and transitions, its ups and downs, with our choices, successes, failures, joys and miseries, excitement and boredom, courage and fear, this multifaceted “Game of Our Lives”.

My father likes to quote a Hungarian proverb:

Gyermekaa ember amig el, Csak a jateknember cserel.” [People are children all their lives; they only change their playthings!] So let me ask you: give me the most basic game that almost everyone plays in one form or another, from early childhood, and for years on end? What would you say?

It’s interesting that though kids today play their games via computer or smart phone, most of them continue to incorporate basic elements of hide and seek: You may search for the candies or the bonus or the bad guys or the enemy or the way out of the maze or into the next board or next level, but there’s a lot of the old classic hide and seek still going on. It’s no coincidence: it’s a basic human or mammalian need for connection, as well as a conflict between this primary need and another need for separateness and independence.

Here’s a Chasidic story about Games and Play that can be relevant to us today:

A great Rebbe had a young son who was destined to become a great Master in his own right. One day, the little boy came crying, dreadfully upset; he was playing hide and seek with some older friends, and just when it was finally his turn to hide and for them to seek, they grew tired of the game and left. In his hiding place, he at first thought he had chosen a great spot, because nobody was even coming close! He imagined how the older kids would be surprised at his ingenuity. Only after a long while did he gradually begin to suspect and finally to painfully realize that he had been left alone, and then he was overwhelmed by feelings of utter abandonment. Well, his sage father hugged and comforted him, remarking: “Isn’t this what we constantly do to the Creator, the Ribono shel olam? He hides from us and waits for us to seek him, and we go and busy ourselves with other pursuits, abandoning him.”

One might debate who abandons whom: do we abandon God, or is it God who may be accused of abandoning us? It is a well-known phenomenon that we tend, almost all of us, to turn to God only when we are in dire straits. “Eli, Eli, lama azavtani; El na refa na la” – Oh God, I can’t deal with this, I can’t take it anymore, help! But when things go smoothly, when we and our loved ones and our people are OK, we tend to drift away and leave God alone. The orthodox have it over us in this regard, for whatever else we might say, their daily routine maintains ongoing contact with God, from “Modeh ani”, to every bracha they utter over everything they eat and drink, to praying three times a day, their skull caps and fringes and modest dress, perhaps studying some Torah, keeping other mitzvoth, through to the “Kri’at Shema” they say at bedtime. If we are not doing these things, and I contend that one doesn’t have to be orthodox to do any of these things and perhaps we should consider, in fact, doing more of them! – but to the extent that we have let these things fall by the wayside, we need to work that much harder today and whenever we may wish to seek reconnection with the Almighty.

In light of the Chasidic tale of hide and seek and of our own need to seek, might we not propose that it is precisely in order to seek out God that we come together in shul on days such as this? Luckily, our tradition sees God during this time of year as if leaving his celestial palace, walking out in the open, more visible, more available, more accessible to us than at other times.

But are we indeed actively looking, purposefully searching? We need to avoid lapsing passively into habitual roles. The chazan and other leaders of the service and myself -we may have it easier in some ways because we need to concentrate be active, but even this may easily miss the mark: if the chazan is concerned with how his voice sounds to you, if I am involved with whether you like my sermon and, God forbid, it shouldn’t be too long. And if you are indeed focused on judging the chazan‘s voice or my sermon, or just dozing off, then we are all missing the point of our being here.

You know Buber’s famous book: “I and Thou”. The walls of our synagogue should be reverberating with the spiritual vibrations of our asking God: “Where are You?” And then, if we are attuned, we will hear the walls, or God, or our insides echoing back to us: “Where are YOU?” “Where ARE you?” Where are we indeed? Where have we been? What have we been doing? And where will we be a year from now? What will we do between now and then that will make a difference to anyone? How can we start, today, tonight, tomorrow?

God may often seem hidden, yet perhaps God is everywhere to be seen if we only take the trouble to really look. In every plant, bush and tree; every insect, bird and animal; every single person. When we see evil, whether in injury and illness, crime, injustice, poverty, hunger, war and unnatural death, we can see just the evil, or we can see the wonder of people coping, surviving, fighting, helping each other, overcoming and somehow continuing on.

If we seek, we can find God, we can find togetherness, we can find meaning, and the strength to carry on. We may try to find all these things in our prayer, and we may be successful, but not by uttering the prayers by rote or just passively listening to them being chanted. It’s not that easy. In fact, for many of us, we will first have to become lost in our prayer, to lose ourselves in true soul-searching in order to find a higher connection and what we need.

So another metaphor for shul, in addition to “Hide and Seek” may be a collective, spiritual “Lost and Found.” We seek God and togetherness and meaning. We may have lost touch with them, we may have hidden from them or they may seem hidden from us, but we won’t give up on finding them once more. If we juxtapose these two expressions, “Hide and Seek” and “Lost and Found”, we might get: “Hide and you are lost; Seek and ye shall find!”

In our tradition, the High Holy Days come in order to allow us, among other things, to take account of our sins and repent. Remember Adam and Eve and the first sin described in the Bible? What do they do immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, as soon as they hear God approaching? That’s right, they hide! And what does God say when he comes to discuss matters: “Ayeka?” Where are you? It’s the original hide and seek in the Garden of Eden! Finally, Adam responds and says he feared God because he realized he was naked. But that was already his second sin, because it was at least partly a lie: clearly he feared God because he had eaten of the forbidden fruit. And to top it off, as soon as God confronts him about that, Adam commits his third misdeed by blaming Eve. This was of course a good try, and in doing so Adam founded a long male tradition of blaming women or others in general for everything that goes wrong. But our tradition had God making short shrift of such maneuvers, and with Adam’s third faux pas we hear God responding like a true baseball umpire: “Strike three, you’re out a here!” And thus we were cast out of the Garden, and can only seek for the way back, or try to create an approximation of it in this world, hopeful of the next.

If we are honest with ourselves, if we don’t hide from ourselves the mistakes we have committed, then we can stand erect and answer honestly: “We are here, with all our sins, our errors, our misdeeds; we will fix all that we can, make amends wherever possible, and we will do all in our power to refrain from similar mistakes in future.” Only when we are truly “here” – only then can we proceed to seek out and to declare to God “OK, we are here; now where are You?” Only then can we expect God to answer and to actively join us as we proceed in our personal and our communal game of life, so that neither we nor God feel any more abandoned. Thus we will do our part in making for a true Tikun Olam. And thus we can hopefully proceed together into a brighter future for ourselves and our loved ones, our community, our People and even our God, no longer hiding but continuing to seek, no longer lost but hoping to find and to be found, forever and ever, leolme olamim.

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