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B'reishit 5782 - No Hiding From God

Saturday, October 2, 2021

We’ve all been there. We’ve gossiped about someone behind their back or walked past a lost dog without pausing to find the owner. When we are behind closed doors or when no one else is present, we often don’t feel the weight of our actions, or even our negligence. But intellectually, we know that that gossip is bound to make it back to its subject and to hurt them and their family. We know that a child may be missing a vital source of love and comfort. Even when no other people are present, we cannot hide from our actions. God is always present, and we cannot hide from God.

In Parashat B’reishit, humanity learns about that impossibility. Adam and Eve attempt to hide from God in a tree, and Cain attempts to hide his murdered brother Abel from God. Neither Adam and Eve nor Cain are successful; God knows Adam and Eve are in the tree, and God knows that Cain has killed his brother. So too, God knows what we’ve been up to; all of our actions, even those performed secretly or behind closed doors, bear consequences.

Time and time again, in this space, we have spoken about Judaism extending beyond these walls. When we leave this synagogue, we are still just as obligated to not to eat crawfish and not to work on Shabbat; we are even still just as obligated not to speak ill of our peers, even the annoying ones! What would it mean, then, for us to take the lessons of Adam, Eve, and Cain into heart and recognize that God is always present, whether we like it or not?

The thought of God’s everlasting presence may seem like too much pressure at times, but that presence can also offer comfort and inspiration. When we perform mitzvot that no one else will see, we can still know that we will be acknowledged for our act of good, whether in the consequences that play out for ourselves or someone else. An anonymous donation will contribute just as much as a donation made in a specific name. A mezuzah placed on your upstairs bedroom door will remind you just as much of the presence of God as the mezuzah placed on your front door. And lighting a Shabbat or Havdalah candle, even when you’re home alone, marks time just as well as lighting with a group. When we practice alone, we give ourselves space to experiment with mitzvot with which we are not yet comfortable or to remind ourselves of attention to God outside of the distractions of the rest of the world.

Sometimes, however, that notion that God is watching is not enough to remind us to act. When we know we will err if not for another human presence, we can call on those we love to be present in our times of need. We can remind those we love of our efforts not to order that ham and cheese sandwich, not to speak ill of that coworker, or to avoid purchasing foods wrapped in plastic. So too, we can ask a friend or a partner to practice the good together - to the homeless in a neighborhood that might otherwise feel uncomfortable or to pray together daily over Zoom. We know that when a tree falls in the woods and no person is present to hear, it still makes a sound, it still affects its surrounding ecosystem, and it still garners the attention of God.

Psalm 121 both terrifies and comforts, with its words:

הִנֵּה לֹא יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן שוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל: ה׳ יִשׁמוֹר צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד–עוֹלָם:

Behold - God will not slumber nor sleep - the Guardian of Israel! Adonai will guard your coming and your going from now until forever. As a personal God, God gives us the tools to choose the good at every moment, encouraging and comforting us when necessary, but also, providing us with pangs of guilt when necessary. As our universal Creator, God has established a world in which every single one of our actions has consequences, whether or not those actions are seen or heard by anyone else. Each step we take affects the steps we will take tomorrow and the next day, and ultimately, affects the people whom we will encounter on those days. From our time in this synagogue space, in Jewish study, and out in the world, we know how and why to pursue the good. May the constant interplay of comfort and pressure we receive from God’s watchful eye inspire us to follow our better instincts, and when that’s not enough, may we know whom to call for support and healthy rebuke. Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784