5775 Kol Nidrei Sermon – AYEKA? WHERE ARE YOU?

I don’t know how many of you have vivid memories from early childhood, but I want to ask you to search back to when you were around three years old. Do you remember the first time you lied to an adult? It was probably to your parents. You probably denied responsibility for something that you did in fact do. And your parents probably saw right through it, cocking their heads to one side with pained disappointment and love saying something like, “Miriam, I think you’re fibbing. You have chocolate all over your face and your chocolaty finger prints are on the cupboard and the stool. You did take cookies without permission, didn’t you?”

Right there, was the beginning of an awakening and a rupture – the evidence gave me away, but the deed was actually hidden from sight and it occurred to me, it would have occurred to you too, to test the size of that obscured field.

It was probably not too much longer after your first attempt, that you lied and got away with it. I wish I could remember what that moment felt like. I imagine it as an exhilarating and unsettling realization that my parents didn’t see or know everything, that there is a public realm we share and there are private, secret realms that don’t have witnesses, and that internally I could know one truth and externally, profess a different story. What is striking is that all of us reached a stage of development when we realized that we could hide.

The Torah narrative of Adam and Eve illuminates these dynamics of human guilt, shame, and the desire to hide. The Jewish foundational story of human nature is not read as beginning with original sin. The Jewish read on the original human state of being is one of innocence, safe vulnerability, and unity.

Adam and Eve are placed in the magnificent heart of the Garden of Eden. They are guardians of the Garden, tilling and tending a plentiful and lush landscape. They are distinct among the other creatures, but not separate from the created whole. God too is distinct, but so intimately close, walking in the Garden in the heat of the afternoon. And the narrator whispers to us, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25). That is inherently and essentially who we are – innocent and open, safely vulnerable and in harmonious and close relationship with everyone and everything around us. You can see that in the face of a baby, eyes open and looking, face – bright and curious, ready to hold your gaze for as long as you can stay relaxed, present, and gazing right back.

However, from the ordered perfection of the cosmos and the idyllic perfection of the Garden of Eden, it takes all of two and a half chapters of Torah for this wholeness and perfection to be disturbed. The only limit Adam and Eve are given, the one and only restriction on their delight and freedom, is the prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And of course, because they are human in the exact ways that we are human, they reach their hands out to grasp the one thing that is not theirs, they do the one thing they are asked to abstain from and respect, and when they do, immediately their eyes are opened, they see that they are naked, and they hide.

As they cower behind the bushes, fig leaves hastily sewn to cover their now private parts, God asks them a simple yet profound question. “Ayeka? – Where are you?”

Adam knows that God is not merely asking for the coordinates of which bush he is quaking behind. Adam answers with as much self-understanding as he can draw together. He responds, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid.” (verse 10). God asks a second question, as pointed as the first, “Who told you that you were naked?”

As soon as self-awareness dawns, feeling exposed and the desire to hide are born together. First Adam hides physically – covering his sex, covering the root of desire, then physically hiding himself in the bushes, trying to hide from God’s sight. And then Adam hides his guilt by shifting blame. He says, “The woman You gave me, gave me the fruit and I ate it.” Eve replies, “The snake enticed me so I ate.”   When you’re suddenly caught with your fig-leaves down, the impulse to hide behind someone else’s guilt creates at least the feeling that your own exposure is somewhat covered.

I am fascinated by Adam’s statement to God, “I heard Your voice and I was afraid because I am naked.” What was Adam afraid of? That he would get into trouble because he misbehaved? Because he broke God’s rule? Too many of us narrowly read the commandments of the Torah and the human struggle to observe them as being concerned with whether or not we are following or breaking someone else’s random rules. I think it is much more multilayered and profound, much more psychologically and ethically astute than that, and this scene in the Garden literally lays it bare.

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve ingest and internalize a conscience. Before that moment, the prohibition not to eat from that tree was a boundary that God asserted in the context of a relationship that was unselfconsciously intimate. Like a toddler and a parent, any boundaries the parent sets are for the child’s well-being and the well-being of their interactions, without the child really understanding what is at stake. As soon as Adam and Eve taste the fruit and their eyes are opened, they are able to distinguish between good and bad, and they begin to understand the impact of their choice. Now they are aware that they chose to eat forbidden fruit and thought they were doing so in secret. They considered the pleasure of it and the knowledge it would give, but did not consider other consequences. They didn’t grasp what was at stake before hand. Now that they get it, it’s too late.

It is so interesting that the first transgression in the Torah is not any of the really big sins. It’s not murder – that comes a chapter later. It’s not stealing or incest – those also come later. In fact, it is not an ethical transgression at all in the ways we usually think about right and wrong. It is a breach in fundamental relationship, a breach in the harmonious intimacy of connection, creating separation and distance. You know that experience – when you discover that a friend, a partner, a child, someone close to you, did something that ruptures the parameters of your relationship. Or you made a choice that ruptured the closeness of connection you had built. It is not just the action per se that causes damage, but what it does to your trust and intimacy. In shock, in disappointment, in fear. you stand there staring at each other, asking, “Ayeka – where are you?” “Who is this person?”

Standing in that suddenly revealed truth is so exposing. Finally showing what has been concealed leaves you both feeling naked. And the fear? Getting caught might be part of it, but what is really frightening is facing the truth that the relationship will never be the same again. There can be repair, sometimes building a stronger, closer, and more mature relationship, but it will never be innocent again. Adam realizes his actions altered the depth of his closeness with God. Now there is no going back and no way to undo it. “I heard Your voice and I was afraid because I am naked.”

As we grow up, most of us find that exposure unbearable. It’s too lonely, too uncomfortable, so we figure out more skilled and proficient ways of hiding and masking. We hide actions we’re ashamed of. We hide the shame we feel about our guilt. We hide our hurts and disappointments. We hide how hard we are struggling and how much help we need. We hide our true feelings about other people. We hide the aspects of ourselves we’ve grow to hate and compensate for. We find a hundred different ways of deflecting, obfuscating, and trying not to be seen.

Genesis tells us, “Adonai made garments of skin (katnot or) for Adam and for his wife, and God dressed them.” I find it both an act of tenderness and a heartbreaking concession that God makes clothes for Adam and Eve – from a state of nakedness without shame to a permanent condition of hiding. From that moment on they are actually always naked, always vulnerable; they are just thinly veiled. And from now on, it will take deliberate choice to bridge the distance between their inner worlds and their outer relationships.

One Hasidic teaching plays on the words katnot or – garments of skin – to say that initially Adam and Eve were beings made of light, or spelled with the letter aleph. After the rupture, God makes garments of or, skins spelled with the letter ayin. From beings of sheer light to physical creatures covered over with skin, the very fact that we are physical beings masks our original, inner light so much so that we often can’t see it in each other, and often can’t even see it in ourselves. We become so accustomed to hiding that we forget it could be otherwise.

But in the Garden of Eden, God doesn’t let Adam and Eve forget. God doesn’t allow them to just hide, but actually helps them to know that even more than wanting to hide how naked they feel, what they actually, achingly, want is to be seen – with their embarrassment, with their mistakes and hurtful choices. Isn’t that what we all want? To be seen, totally, and embraced, totally, in the whole of who we are, with nothing to hide. God asks, “Ayeka – Where are you?” Show yourself. It’s an invitation to be liberated from the isolation of shame, liberated from the fake smile and brave face. God is saying to them – show yourselves, flawed and naked, honest and responsible and, despite it all, stay in genuine relationship.

This is teshuvah. This is repentance and return. All the prayers we say enumerating our hurtful actions, our selfishness, our regrets, tapping our hearts with our fists, it’s all in answer to one question – Ayeka, where are you? Where have you been? Can you show up now and honestly show yourself? Will you dare to come out of hiding, lay yourself bare before a witness, and allow yourself to be compassionately seen so that what you have done doesn’t define you. So that how you grow from it does.

It is telling that Adam and Eve don’t feel naked in front of each other – they committed the same transgression, so they don’t feel ashamed of their actions in front of one another. And they’re both afraid and justify their choices in the same ways, so they can’t hold each other accountable and they can’t help each other transcend the shame and the desire to hide. They need an outside witness. We need an outside witness.

When we say the vidui – “For the sin we have done BEFORE YOU … ” – the “You” is essential. Who or what is your You? Whatever you believe, we need to see ourselves in the presence of a witness who won’t buy our justifications and won’t participate in our excuses. We need a witness who will stand for the most robust goodness we can envision, and in whose presence we can palpably feel when we’ve lost direction or given up on our principles and on ourselves. You know the people who make you want to be your best, just by being in their presence. We need a witness who is not going to let us hide, but will peek under the mask, take us by the hand, and lead us into the light of truth, a realm in which ultimately nothing is hidden. And we need a witness who won’t just call us on our transgressions and failures but who knows our core goodness and incorruptible light, and mirrors them back to us.

Doing this work together, in shared ritual, as a community, offers an experience of this. We are witnesses to each other. I think most of the time it’s hard for us to believe that we don’t actually want to hide. It feels like the safest thing to do. We assume it will be too hard, too vulnerable, too painful to stand in the whole truth, to show what a mess we are and how often we get things wrong.

But what we are practicing today is trying to get a glimpse of what it can be like to take off our masks, to be seen in our nakedness and still be loved. We are practicing getting closer to one another, letting ourselves become softer and more tender, so we can look at each other through unmasked, unguarded eyes. And if we really want to try this work together, we’re going to need to know each other more deeply, more regularly, in a way that is more real, messier, more loving, and keeps track of the hiding places we habitually hang out in. I’m talking about something different than individual friendships, but the real work that Jewish community can be. And for me, the Holy One is right in there too, in and through each of us and larger than the finite, human whole – a Divine presence of Ultimate Love and Truth, before whom I simply don’t want to hide.

Contemporary rabbi Jonathan Slater teaches that if there is a realm of unforgetting, of unhiding, then nothing that I have ever done is lost. Everything is available for me to liberate from the shadows of concealing. Everything is available for me to confront. And I can be whole again. And the world itself can be whole (Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice). And with a wider, softer, wiser love, we can cultivate Eden in our own backyards.

Shana tova!

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