This year we actually got a look at Pluto, some 3 billion miles away. That’s only 4-7 light hours however — still paltry, compared to the closest star (other than the sun) which is 4.24 light years distant. Even if we somehow land a space craft on it, we will barely have scratched the surface of what’s out there.
At least we know such stars exist, however. Imagine what we do not know and may never know about the universe, most of which will always remain hidden from our sight.
Then too, there are the spiritual quandaries that have haunted human imagination for millennia: Why are we here? What happens when we die? These too are matters that remain hidden from our purview.
Hence my fascination with Deuteronomy 29:28, part of the synagogue reading prior to Rosh Hashanah: “The hidden things are God’s concern; the revealed matters are for us.” Human beings are great detectives, but in matters of science, the more we know, the more we know how much we do not know; and for the existential mysteries of life, there aren’t even any obvious clues to follow. These are the hidden matters that are known to God alone.
But being human, we cannot help but wonder about them, and toward that end, we get the High Holy Days (yamim nora’im, “Days of Awe,” in Hebrew). Now is the annual opportunity to contemplate these hidden things, of which, I offer three.
The first two are life and death. It is not given to us to know why either occurs. More awesome than how the universe came into being is the remarkable fact that it did. Within those unfathomable eons of time and space, moreover, we have somehow been graced with a tiny window of something called human life; and within that mystery of human life generally, there is that infinitesimally breathtaking thing we know instinctively as our own individual selves.
The will to life is everywhere, from the grass that sprouts through cracks in the sidewalk to the sci-fi fictions of attaining eternal life. Rosh Hashanah celebrates this mystery of life. It is the “birthday” of the world, we say, and even more, the birthday of humanity.
On Yom Kippur, by contrast, we contemplate death, for on that day, we neither eat nor drink, as if we were already dead. Our mounting physical feebleness throughout the day reminds us that youth is just a preamble to old age; that sickness will eventually, but inevitably, drain our energy; and that suffering is frightening and real. At Yizkor we remember our dead, and we prepare ourselves for our own end, that may not come for years, we pray, but will come someday – that is certain.
Third, the last and greatest of the hidden things we will never completely fathom, is love. The Haftarah of Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath that separates Rosh Hashanah from Yom Kippur will celebrate the mystery of love – God’s love for us, and by extension, our love for one another, and even the love we must reserve for ourselves, for we are made in God’s image. More than I am dumbfounded by the inexplicable actuality of life and the inescapable reality of death, I marvel at the unpredictable acts of love that fill each dawning day.
I will spend these Days of Awe in my own awe at what I will never understand: the why of life and death, and the saving grace of love. I will vow to love more and wiser and better — to love especially the people I love anyway and to show them that I love them. Rabbi Akiba used to say, “Happy are you, because God loves you; happier still are you, because God lets you know it.” Like God, I can show people that I love them.
Love is a hidden thing that I will never understand. But showing love is a revealed matter that is in my power — a power I dare not squander.