Yom Kippur 5774: The Sage of Sacred Secrets (Yizkor)

Moshe Rabbeinu, alav hashalom—Our master Moses, peace be upon him, played many pivotal roles during 40 years of leadership. He was Israel’s liberator, lawgiver, prophet, judge, general and ombudsman. He was his people’s harshest critic and their staunchest defender. He spoke directly to God, and yet was humble. Moses was our greatest prophet of all time. Oh, and he was also a spy.

What was that? Don’t remember that story? It isn’t actually found in the Torah, but the Rabbis tell many tales of the time when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah. Rabbi Natan (Bavli Yoma 4b) says that Moses had to fast for 7 days in order to empty himself of all food and drink and become like an angel, למרק אכילה ושתיה שבמעיו, לשומו כמלאכי השרת. Still, the angels objected to his presence in their heavenly heights and … they were right to worry. Midrash Devarim Rabba tells us what happened next:

Walking around the heavens, accepting God’s gift of Torah, Moses hears a curious sound. What is that prayer the angels are singing? Moses listens closely. It sounds like this—barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed—praised be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever!

This mysterious line is the signature prayer of the angels, a jealously guarded secret code, but Moses likes the sound of it, so he takes it home as a souvenir. The midrash says that he stole it from the angels and taught it to Israel, גנב אותו מן המלאכים ולימדה לישראל.[1]

We know this prayer—it’s the one that we normally whisper after the Shema. Did you ever wonder why we whisper it? Now you can guess: it is to avoid annoying the angels, who are still upset that their top secret liturgy was lifted from the heavens and delivered to humanity. Only on Yom Kippur do we dare say this prayer aloud, because on this day, we too are like angels. We don’t eat or drink; we pray all day; and we avoid sin. On other days we go about our business, but today we are a gathering of angels, and we say the angels’ prayer proud and loud, again and again, all the way to the end of Ne’ilah.

Centuries after Moses, the prophet Ezekiel had a similar experience when he visited heaven. He reports, “I was lifted by a wind and I heard behind me a great voice, ותשאני רוח ואשמע אחרי קול רעש גדול.” According to another Midrash, Ezekiel heard the same angelic praise as Moses, ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד, but afterwards he modified the expression into the one that we use on a daily basis in the Kedusha, ברוך כבוד ה’ ממקומו.[2] In other words, Ezekiel covered his tracks.

When I first read these Midrashim about the stolen prayers of the angels, they reminded me of another story, but not a Jewish one. I am thinking, of course, about Prometheus. According to the Greek myth, Prometheus was a Titan given the task of fashioning the first human from clay.[3] But he overstepped his orders and stole fire from Mt Olympus, wrapping it in a giant fennel stalk and delivering it to humanity, thus allowing for the development of civilization. Scholars today think that the Greek myth and even the name of Prometheus may have come first from India, from the Vedic Pramantha, which means, “stolen,” and refers to the legend of Mātariśvan, who also stole heavenly fire. I don’t know what happened to Mātariśvan, but Prometheus suffered a gruesome punishment. Zeus ordered him chained to a rock, and an eagle ate his immortal liver every day. He was punished, and yet humanity benefited from his gift.

Greek myths are not our Torah, and I don’t think that Prometheus is still suffering for our fires. Indeed, our Midrash claims that Adam discovered fire right after Shabbat, which is why we say a blessing over fire as part of havdalah. But the theme of forbidden knowledge is illustrated powerfully through his story. It’s not right to spill secrets, these stories imply, but the main problem… is getting caught. Really, where would humanity be without the use of fire? And where would Israel be without these essential prayers?

It looks like Moses got off easy—he wasn’t punished at all for his theft of the angel prayer. According to the Talmud (b. Shabbat 88b-89a), he eventually won them over, and the angels fell in love with Moses.[4] Moreover, you get the impression that God is quite tolerant of the efforts of humanity to uncover heavenly secrets. The ur-text of this theme is of course the Garden of Eden story. God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and yet God plants it right there in the middle of the garden, luscious and inviting.  Of course the people eat the fruit, they become enlightened, and they suffer various consequences. But are we really to believe that God wanted to keep Adam and Eve blissfully ignorant in the garden, like a pair of domesticated pets? Wasn’t it always the plan for the people to gain knowledge? Doesn’t the creator want his creatures to become wise?

In fact, Judaism teaches that God created the entire world for the sake of wisdom—ה’ בחכמה יסד ארץ—that we would become enlightened (Proverbs 3:19). We are commanded to study Torah, which is arguably the greatest of the commandments, ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם (b. Shabbat 127a).Why, then, should any knowledge be forbidden?

Professor Neil Gillman told me about a book by the late Roger Shattuck called Forbidden Knowledge (Harcourt, 1996). Shattuck opens his formidable literary survey of this subject by citing Chaucer’s Wife of Bath: “Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we.”              She said it right—the minute someone says it’s a secret, we just have to find out what it is. Pandora couldn’t keep from lifting the lid from her jar, and neither can we.

Curiosity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a source of curses. On the contrary, curiosity is the engine of scientific discovery and of human progress, and this has only accelerated in our Internet age. We say that, “information wants to be free.” This expression, coined by Stewart Brand at the first Hacker’s Conference in 1984, came from a fuller statement: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

And fight they do! We are of two minds—we understand the need for secrecy, and yet we also say we want transparency. Secrets are essential. They protect the dignity of people—who among us could tolerate the publication of every act and utterance that we ever made? Secrets allow for the development of trust. Access to secrets is the source of privilege, advantage and power. We are all guarding secrets right now, aren’t we? In fact there is a blessing that celebrates this fact:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלקנו מלך העולם, חכם הרזים.

Praised are you Lord, our God, who is wise with secrets.

This appears in one of our earliest Jewish books, known as the Tosefta, among a list of blessings called ברכות ראיה to recite when you see something special. Among them—when you see a big gathering of people, you should say “Blessed is God, who is wise with secrets,” for their faces do not resemble one another, and the minds do not resemble one another.[5]  What exactly does this mean? Why do we call Godחכם הרזים , the sage of secrets? I think we are grateful to feel safe in the private recesses of our mind, and also grateful to think that our creator knows our innermost thoughts, and loves us with an unconditional love, like a parent for their child. That is the rarest of gifts, and it is high praise to call Godחכם הרזים , the sage of secrets.

We treasure our secrets, and feel violated and vulnerable when they are invaded. Recent revelations that the NSA has been keeping metadata for every phone call made in the country for the past five years have upset us. Our email is being read, our calls are being monitored, and our movements are being tracked. We know that this is to some extent necessary, but still, it bothers us to be watched so closely by our government. It’s creepy. Are you bothered by this?

This past year we have followed the stories of Edward Snowden and Private Manning, now known as Chelsea and living in prison. Most people are deeply conflicted about these incidents. We know that the government has to collect intelligence, and we realize that, it is not acceptable for an American analyst with top-secret clearance to travel to China and Russia and tell them what he knows. Snowden and Manning violated American law and presumably caused great harm. And yet, we are also a bit grateful to them for letting us know what our government is up to, aren’t we? And even if we have nothing to hide, we don’t love being watched so closely. So, we are conflicted.

Conflicted, or hypocritical? We want the government to gather intelligence, but we don’t want to have to think about it too much, or be responsible for the behavior of our secret agents. When Russian intelligence announced that it had shared information with the FBI prior to the Boston Marathon bombing about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and asserted that the information was not taken seriously over here, there was a public uproar, whether or not it was true. We demand that our government be competent in collecting and interpreting intelligence to keep us safe. When face –tracking software was used to identify the brothers, we were relieved, and the citizens of Boston were able to resume their lives. Thank God the government had the intelligence, if not to prevent the attack, then at least to find the attackers and prevent them from moving on to their next target.

And yet we worry that the vast power of the State to scan every email, listen to every call, recognize every face and break every attempt to encrypt communication—we worry that such power will inevitably be abused. The presumption of secrecy is necessary for commerce and collaboration, and this has always been the case. Over 1,000 years ago, Rabbenu Gershom placed a “herem” or ban on anyone who opened private correspondence without permission. Almost 2,000 years ago in the Talmud (Yoma 4b) Rabba said that every communication should be presumed confidential until we hear otherwise.[6]

We cherish our privacy, perhaps all the more so as modern technology has made it harder to protect. TMI–too much information can shame people, undermine valuable relationships and cause great damage.

But it is not only fear or shame that motivates us to hide certain knowledge.  Desire is nurtured by the sense of yearning for that which is unknown. Emily Dickinson offers an outstanding example of the romance of concealment with an eight-line poem called, “A Charm.”

A Charm invests a face / imperfectly beheld–/

The Lady dare not lift her Veil/ For fear it be dispelled

But peers beyond her mesh–/ And wishes—and denies–/

Lest Interview annul a want / That Image—satisfies—

Emily Dickinson describes the romance of the veil, and the lady’s fear of removing it, lest clarity of view undermine her mysterious beauty. Here is the paradox: We need to conceal, even as we are curious to reveal. This is the give and take of seduction—showing enough to intrigue, but hiding enough to entrance.

There are also religious dimensions to the power of hidden knowledge. The Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal explores these in his book, Concealment and Revelation (Princeton, 2007). Halbertal observes that the Torah sought to obscure the divine image behind a veil of mystery. He writes, “God preserves his sublimity and separateness, not because He has no image, but because it has never been seen.” (19)

Has this ever been said better than in the Song of Songs?

]דומה דודי לצבי או לעפר האילים[ הנה זה עומד אחר כתלנו משגיח מן החלנות מציץ מן החרכים:

[My beloved is like a gazelle or like a young stag.] There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the window, peering through the lattice. (2:9)

God is like a hidden lover, peering through the lattice, מציץ מן החרכים. Without such concealment, where would be the mystery, the power, and the holiness of God? And yet, as the Wife of Bath said, “Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we.” Throughout our long history, we have desired to see God clearly. Heschel wrote two books, Man in Search of God and God in Search of Man. A classmate of mine once called them the peek-a-boo series; and like the children’s game, so too is the grown-up religion. Always seeking, never reaching—this is the essence of religious life.

Moses cries, הראני נא את-כבדך—show me your glory! God replies, no man can see me and live—לא יראני האדם וחיbut God’s rejection only augments the yearning of Moses and many mystics to see the Glory.

The Psalmist implores God, pleading with great desire, את פניך יקוק אבקש, I want to see your face, Lord! אל תסתר פניך ממני Do not hide your face from me!”  (Psalm 27: 8-9).

Mystics have tried to push aside the veil, to unite with God, but the veil remains, and God’s face is still hidden. So it always has been, and so it will remain.

Concealment of the divine presence is perhaps just an example of the other great concealments of our lives. What is our essence, our soul? Is it just the sum of our experiences, or do we have a durable, permanent part which will survive?  Maimonides followed Aristotle in bifurcating between essence and accident, between those aspects of being which are eternal, and those which are ephemeral. According to him, the purpose of life is to cultivate our connection to Truth, to transcend the limitations of the body.

Later Jewish thinkers spoke of גשמיות ורוחניות, body and soul, likewise accepting the Greek bifurcation between the imperfect, impure and impermanent body, and the pure, perfect and permanent soul. But I am not convinced by this mind-body dualism. Our bodies really are ourselves, and whatever experiences, insights and emotions we have, whatever impact we can hope to exert on the world, are this is through the mechanism of our physical lives.

Yom Kippur is the day when we reduce our physical needs in order to maximize our spiritual potential. But we are not trying to escape our bodies. No, we do this work in real time and space, in these bodies, and in this community. We are not really seeking transcendence, to leave this world behind, but rather immanence, to invest this world with the divine presence. Like Moses, we fast in order to glimpse other planes of existence, but only in order to infuse this world with greater goodness, insight, beauty and holiness.

We also spend time on Yom Kippur thinking about people we have known and loved who are gone from us now.  At Yizkor we arrive at the limits of our knowledge. We gaze at a gate which remains opaque. We are curious, but reconciled to live with mystery. Perhaps our loved ones are just nearby, and the gap between this world and the next is gossamer thin. Perhaps so. It is apparently a secret.

But this secret does not leave us ignorant and powerless. We have the ability to remember. To think about them, and to extend their lives through ours. When I say Yizkor, I think in turn about each of my relatives whose lives touched mine. The two great grandparents whom I knew, Sarah and Sam; a third for whom I am named, Haskel Neviadomsky. My four grandparents, Rose and Irv, Belle and Sam. And my mother, my teacher, Phyllis, z”l, gone these eight years. I say their names; I recall their faces; I try to hear their voice and recall their touch. In a quick moment, I try to remember their Torah—the insights that they offered, the tasks that they began. And I dedicate myself to continue their work in the world.

Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to mysteries. Will we gain atonement for our sins? Is God present in our midst? Do our loved ones survive in some spiritual realm? Will we? These are all mysteries that elude us, and that is good. It increases our yearning, and also our learning. Thinking about these mysteries intently for some quiet hours of prayer can make a difference in our lives. It can motivate us to make changes in our behavior, leading to durable improvements to the world.

Some people leave the room for Yizkor, and in a few minutes, if that is your custom, you may do so. But everyone can benefit from using this time to think about prior generations. To contemplate the mysteries, and to commit ourselves to concrete actions. In the book of Proverbs we read וצדקה תציל ממות, righteous behavior rescues from death. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yitzhak teaches that four actions can change an outcome from bad to good: tzedakah, crying out; changing one’s name, and changing one’s behavior.[7]

Let’s try each of these strategies today. As we say Yizkor, let us remember the people we have loved, cry out in longing for their presence, and pledging to give tzedakah in their memory. Let us associate our name with theirs, and extend their good deeds through our own actions. Let us do teshuvah, returning to ideal selves we may yet become, so that in some mysterious way, we can gain כפרה,  atonement.

Finally, because we are at JTS, I would like to ask every person in this room to consider a gift of tzedakah to this school. This is a place of Torah and mitzvot; a place where we train the next generation of leaders of the Jewish community. You have the information in your brochures. After Yom Tov, please make a donation in memory or in honor of others, and in support of the students and programs of this great school. Then you too can be like Moses, bringing a gift for Israel, and bringing the divine presence in this world.

May we and our families be inscribed and sealed for a new year of good life, health, and peace.


[1]  דברים רבה (ליברמן) פרשת ואתחנן. ולמה ישראל אומרי’ אותו בלחישה אלא כשעלה משה למרום גנב אותו מן המלאכים ולימדה לישראל. א”ר שמואל בר נחמן לה”ד לבן בתו של מלך שהיתה לו בת בתולה, והיתה רואה בגדים נאים ואומר’ לו קח את הבגדים הללו, והיה לוקח לה, פעם אחת נכנס לפלטין של מלך וראה קוזמירין של מטרונה וגנב אותה ובא ונתנה לבתו, התחיל (מצוה) [מצווה] (ואומרת) [ואומר] לה, כל הבגדים שלקחתי ליך לבוש אותן בפרהסיא, אבל קוזמירין זה גנוב הוא, אל תלבשי אותו אלא מן הדלת ולפנים, כך אמ’ משה לישראל, כל המצוות שנתתי לכם ממה שקבלתי מן התורה, אבל השם הזה ממה ששמעתי ממלאכי השרת שבו הם משבחי’ להקב”ה ונטלתי אותו מהם, לכך תהיו אומרי’ אותו בלחישה, ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד. למה הן אומרי’ אותו ביום הכפורי’ בפרהסיא אלא שהם כמלאכי’, לובשי’ לבנים ולא אוכלי’ ולא שותין ואין בהם לא חטא ולא עון שהקב”ה סולח להם כל עונותיהם.

[2] בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת תולדות פרשה סה. ר’ שמואל בר נחמן אמר כתיב (יחזקאל ג) ותשאני רוח ואשמע אחרי קול רעש גדול וגו’, רעש גדול אתמהא אלא משקילסתי אני וחבירי ואח”כ ואשמע אחרי קול רעש גדול ברוך כבוד ה’ ממקומו, ומה הם אומרים ברוך שם.

[3] Hesiod, Theogony, 507-616.

[4]  תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף פט עמוד א. מיד כל אחד ואחד נעשה לו אוהב, ומסר לו דבר…

[5]   תוספתא מסכת ברכות (ליברמן) פרק ו. הרואה את אכלסין אומ’ ברוך חכם הרזים לפי שאין פרצופותיהן דומין זה לזה ואין דעתן דומות זו לזו.

[6]  תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף ד עמוד ב. רבה: מניין לאומר דבר לחבירו שהוא בבל יאמר, עד שיאמר לו לך  אמור – שנאמר  (ויקרא א) וידבר ה’ אליו מאהל מועד לאמר .

 [7]   תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף טז עמוד ב. ואמר רבי יצחק: ארבעה דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, אלו הן: צדקה, צעקה, שינוי השם, ושינוי מעשה. צדקה – דכתיב וצדקה תציל ממות, צעקה – דכתיב ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצקותיהם יוציאם, שינוי השם – דכתיב שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה, וכתיב וברכתי אתה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן, שינוי מעשה – דכתיב וירא האלהים את מעשיהם, וכתיב וינחם האלהים על הרעה אשר דבר לעשות להם ולא עשה.

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