NiSh’ma: Elu v’Elu

A simulated Talmud page with three commentators exploring a blessing to our God of Secrets, that each of us has a unique intellect.

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Reb Haim of Volozhin on Bemidbar Rabbah Pinchas 21:2

“The halakhah is that when one sees a large mass of people then one makes a blessing: Baruch Chacham Razim! Blessed is the God of Secrets. For just as none of the faces are the same, so too none of the intellects are identical, rather each and every person has their own independent intellect (daat).

NiSh’ma

Daniel BrennerBy Daniel Brenner:

I once heard a Hasidic story about a rabbi who developed the spiritual ability to channel other people’s thoughts. One day, one of his students begged to learn the tricks to reading the minds of others. Reluctantly, the rabbi taught the young disciple. The next day, the rabbi overheard the disciple pointing people out to his fellows as they passed by the shul: “See him, all he thinks about all day is holy books, a real tzadik! But see him, all he thinks about is men and women engaging in sex! A shanda!” The rabbi grabbed the arm of his young disciple and scolded him: “That’s enough mind-reading.” “Why?” his student asked, “I am learning so much, now that I can understand the secret thoughts of men!” “Well,” the rabbi replied, “you just praised our town’s bookbinder, who is a thief, and you just cursed the town’s matchmaker, who is one of the holiest souls in our village!”

One of the functions of liturgy is to keep us humans
humble. This blessing, Chacham Razim, which
blesses the God of Secrets, keeps us humble by
teaching: If we see a large group of people and if
for some reason we hold the conceit that we can
read the minds of those around us, and we actually
think we know their secrets, stop! Though God is
wise to secrets, we are not. Reb Haim of Volozhin
envisions God’s wisdom as an unbreakable encrypted databank of billions of individually led
human secrets, ours included. The best we can ever do, I think, is to try to understand what is happening in our own independent intellects, try to see the world through different perspectives (elu v’elu), and hope that, on occasion, we will feel the rush of divine interconnectivity.

NiSh’ma

Hank LazerBy Hank Lazer:

I am initially drawn to the phrase “God of Secrets,” though I’ll make my way there indirectly. As Rabbi Daniel Brenner’s commentary notes, it is this wonderful blessing — Chacham Razim — that points us toward the God of Secrets and keeps us humble. Indeed, we cannot know one another from the outside. Each is an “other” to me, to be respected, cherished, and considered by me for the enigma that we also are to ourselves.

As a poet and not a scholar of Jewish texts, I approach this passage with what my Zen practice calls beginner’s mind. I thought I understood halakhah to mean Jewish law, but my first etymological dig — for the God of Secrets is simultaneously present and occluded in language — suggests that halakhah at its root means “the path that one walks,” and, in the case of this passage, the path to walk along is the road of language. God is a God of Secrets; otherwise, it would be easy to know God directly and with certainty. God is the keeper of secrets, and the best-kept secret is the very nature of God. Blessed is the God of Secrets for that God allows us to love and to be on intimate terms with the unknowable.

Nish’ma

Tiferet BerenbaumBy Tiferet Berenbaum:

Attending a recent international conference of the Bnai Brith Youth Organization, I was awed at the sight of more than 3,000 young Jews sitting around tables laid out for Shabbat. For such a moment, our tradition gives us the blessing Baruch Chacham Razim, blessed is the One who is wise to secrets. I love working with teenagers who are simultaneously throwing off the cloak of childhood and engaging with the realities of adult living. They are both testy and open to new experiences and deep learning. Our next generation has access to greater scientific and technological advances than we had, and because of social media, video, and the vast knowledge base of the Internet, they will know a great deal more than us.

As Rabbi Daniel Brenner writes, one purpose of liturgy is to keep us humble. This particular blessing humbles us by helping us acknowledge that we cannot know God’s secrets or the vast unknowns that our younger generations will eventually discover. Khalil Gibran poignantly writes about youth: “For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.” Walking into that Shabbat-ready room, I saw the future; I saw solutions to problems we haven’t yet imagined. I saw promise. Only the Holy Blessed One, the Chacham Razim, knows the truth within each of those teens. As adult guides, our job is to help them discover and manifest that truth in their lives.

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