This past week I joined the first-graders at the Kol Tzedek Torah School and then stayed for tefilah (prayer) time. I listened as the students took turns translating the words of the Shema. When they got to the word "Adonai," one student eagerly piped up, "God doesn't have a name!" And then another kid clarified, "God has many names!" There was a lot of resonance in the room and affirming ASL "me too" hand gestures that these kids clearly learn to use in school. I joined in myself.
God is not a Jewish name for the Divine. It is an anglicized Germanic placeholder for that which is ineffable and ultimately beyond us, but somehow also inseparable from us. I have so many favorite names for God. It changes like the weather to help me meet the moment.
This week, I have been meditating on one particular name, Yodea Ta'alumot - the Knower of Secrets. I can imagine that for some people, this phrase might evoke an uncomfortable sense of spiritual surveillance, especially in a world that is increasingly digitized and documented.
But for me, this emanation of the Divine calls me to account in a way that feels supportive, inviting me to bring care and attention to my actions and my thoughts. And that there is a witness to my inner experience. I am not alone with my mind.
It is not uncommon that above the Ark in the sanctuary of a synagogue, one might find the phrase, "Da lifnei mi atah omed," which translates to "Know before whom you stand." I think the rabbis imagine this as a way to set intention for the Amidah - the "standing" prayer. Though it always lands larger for me personally. Know before whom you stand, not just in prayer, but in life (and maybe even in death too).
While I think the short phrase can be intimidating, I have always experienced it as an invitation to live a life of integrity; to be reminded that the One before whom I stand Knows all secrets. It echoes another name for the DIvine, the Blessed Judge of Truth. For me, these emanations of the Divine invite me into a relationship of spiritual accountability.
What works about this relationship of spiritual accountability is that it is mutual.
There is a striking moment in this week's Torah portion, Vayera. The Holy Blessed One is disappointed in the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. So much so, that They plan to destroy the entirety of the two cities. This comes on the heels of having said to Abraham, "Lech lecha" - go, leave everything you know and love, and I will bless you.
The Holy One remembers this promise and wonders aloud (Genesis 18:17),
(יז) וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃
"Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?"
What does the Holy One mean by this question?
Can I hide? - as in, Is it possible? Or is it ethical? Is the Holy One really worried about what Abraham might think? Might Abraham judge the Holy One for causing destruction, for acting without compassion and integrity?
And after wondering aloud, the Holy One seems to arrive at the immediate conclusion that They can't hide from Abraham and immediately proceeds to explain to Abraham the intention to destroy the two cities.
One commentary writes, "This is a verse of supreme importance in the Book of Genesis. God promises to have a special relationship with Abraham and his children, so that they will be inspired to do what is right and just..."
The worth of this promise is in the real mutuality of this relationship. God's relationship with Abraham also inspires God to do what is right and just, as Abraham pleads, prays, and protests that God not wipe out the innocent with the guilty. This verse seems to suggest that God knows before whom They stand (the children of Abraham), just as we strive to know before whom we stand.
The Talmud teaches, "The descendants of Abraham are characterized by three traits: a capacity for kindness, a sense of honor, and a commitment to do what is right."
According to this week's parsha, we are more able to do what is right when we remember before whom we stand and to whom we are accountable, and have the courage to speak truth to (our highest) power. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.