Nitzavim: Killer Secrets

We all have secrets.  There is a part of life that we share with no one else, not our spouse or partner, not our children or parents. There is a part of our lives that is only for us. It is the part that you only share with your own heart.  In fact, keeping something hidden from the rest of the world is the very thing that makes us individuals.  If you had nothing just for you alone, then who are you, really?  By keeping something secret, you give birth to yourself. 

The Torah tells the story of how we developed the idea of both the hidden and the secret.  After eating of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve become aware of who they are as individuals.  They suddenly realize they are naked, and clothed themselves in fig leaves. The first act of awakening is knowing something about yourself that no one else knows. The demarcation of private and public – inside and outside – is how we become ourselves. It’s this quality, this individualistic wisdom is embodied in story of eating the Tree of Knowledge  This tree, once forbidden to eat, wakes up the mind. Once the apple is eaten, this wisdom – of knowing who you are, the Torah says, is one that we share with God. (Gen. 3:5)  

Keeping a secret, makes us both human and divine.

Yet there are so many times where what is inside causes tremendous pain. I have seen much of this secret pain in my life as a rabbi.  I’ve seen families struggle with addiction and depression. I have seen lives ended because bad choices lead to secret despair.  I’ve lost too many kids. When we are stricken with mental illness and bury souls so deep in the darkness that all we see in the mirror is a husk of human flesh, it is no wonder we reject what we see. When we hide our pain, when we keep it secret, the darkness can overwhelm us.  It can kill us. 

If you are fortunate enough to live in America, you live amidst the greatest wealth, education, and success in all of human history.  We truly have a great nation.  At the same time, we live in the most medicated society on the planet. Americans make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, but use 80 percent of the world’s opioids. We have some of the highest drug rates of any developed nation.  Why is it that in the most successful human project ever created we need to drug ourselves in order to survive? How is it that one out of every five adults every year experiences mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals between 10 to 34 years old?  In the greatest society ever built, one that has given prosperity to so many, we seem to be running away from life. 

Our secrets are killing us.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavin, lays bare the need to shed light on the hidden pain that seems to be everywhere.  The Torah teaches, “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things are ours and our children’s so that we may act on the teachings of this Torah forever.”  (Deut.29:28) Commentators overly focus on the verse’s dichotomy between the Divine and human, between inside and outside. I see it very differently.  Rather than being at odds with each other, this verse is teaching us about the godliness within. The hidden things belong to God.  Secrets belong to God. The very thing that makes us human, our interiority, is thus actually part of God’s domain.  

God is not just without, but within – the part of yourself you keep hidden from the world, the part that brings you shame, guilt and pain.  That part of you belongs to God too. To plumb your depths and confront your pain is as much an act of revelation as standing at the sea or under a smoky mountain. Revelation comes from within as much as without.  Those hidden parts become all of our responsibility, our commandments to share and to heal.  To give hope and to give love. For the Torah is not found up in heaven, nor is it beyond the sea.  “It is in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deut. 30:14)  It is revealed so that we may reveal ourselves and cast off our shame. It is for our sake, and for our children’s. 

Last year, my community, Valley Beth Shalom, endeavored to take on phantom pains that permeate the lives of our community.  We launched So Healthy Together, a mental health initiative meant to destigmatize mental illness, and to help individuals and families struggling with depression and addiction. The success of this program is unimaginable.  To date, we’ve touched nearly 4,000 individuals through teachings, meetings, therapeutic programs and our VBS Counseling Center, a partnering organization of volunteer and professional counselors.  I’m blown away by our community’s commitment to addressing the hidden pain that seems to be everywhere.  It is when we reveal what is hidden that we can change the lives of so many.  We are currently designing and rolling out the next wave of programs and seminars. Stay tuned. 

As the new year approaches, if you are struggling inside, reach out to a professional.  Let us all work to make what is unknown known, to bring light to the darkness, to bring hope where there is despair, and to bring life to each other. 

Shabbat Shalom 

L’Shanah Tovah

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