A few weeks back, the Torah brought us the disturbing story of the deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, an apparent punishment for ambiguous wrongdoing. The story is difficult and mysterious. But one thing is made clear in a postscript at the start of this week’s parshah: Aaron is not to enter the Holy of Holies whenever he chooses, but only at the designated time on Yom Kippur. He is not to come “behind the curtain” into the most sacred part of the Sanctuary, except at the time that God specifically requires.
The image of the curtain dividing the area that is open to the priests from the Holy of Holies is evocative.
Rabbi Dennis Ross, in “A Year with Martin Buber,” explores a rich layer of meaning hidden in the phrase “behind the curtain,” inspired by a teaching from Buber. Ross writes: “For Aaron, for Buber, as well as for us, the sacred, at times, is inaccessible. In those moments, it is important to avoid despairing and, instead, have faith that the curtain will again part.”
For many of us, the sacred often feels inaccessible. This is a frequent experience in many of our lives. We are so deluged with the realities of the material world that we may often feel unable to get close to the sacred, even when we are moved to try or long for a sense of connection.
Ross continues: “On the significance of the curtain that blocks admission to the sacred, Buber relates how Rabbi Eleazar of Koznitz teaches that when a window curtain is closed, there is nothing to see. But when a person draws open a curtain, a beloved can gaze in.”
The sense that there is a barrier between us and God, the Sacred, the Ultimate, is familiar to me and to many who share such experiences with me. I am locked in everyday consciousness, in which I can only encounter that which I can see, touch and measure. Life at such times is flat, lacking in the extra layers of depth and meaning that are present when I am able to open the “curtain” of my own mind and heart, and let in the Holy.
I am reminded of the famous teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who asked, “Where is God to be found?” The answer: Wherever we let God in. When I dare to open the curtain, I am invited into sacred space and time.
Ross reads this teaching in connection with Buber’s project of exploring the different kinds of relationships in life: (1) the “I-It,” in which we treat others instrumentally, valuing them only for the function they serve in our lives; and (2) the “I-Thou,” in which we relate to others as the infinite, holy creatures that we all are.
Sometimes we are too busy, too preoccupied, too anxious or too self-absorbed to “open the curtain” of awareness to others. Locked in what the mystics call “small mind,” we relate to others as objects, present to mechanically fill certain roles, not as full humans, created in the image of the Divine.
When we are blessed to open our awareness into “I-Thou,” or “big mind,” we are able to “open the curtain” and go beyond the narrow realm of self-preoccupation, to see others as the wonders that they are.
There is no on-off switch. At times, we may long to gain access to the radiance all around us, but we cannot reach that blessed space of open awareness. At other times, our own desire and willingness may help us to “open the curtain,” or the opening may come as a blessing, only partially as a result of our own effort.
This week, try to notice moments when you feel closed down, unable to give yourself to the Divine, to the beauty of nature, to the wonder of another human being. Do not berate yourself — this is a natural part of all of our lives. Just notice, then, when something opens up (because you made extra effort, or because of grace) and you find yourself in a more open-hearted place. Just notice how this blessed awareness comes and goes — throughout the day or throughout the week.
To know that sometimes the “curtain” will open can make all the difference.
This post first appeared at https://jweekly.com/2022/04/29/if-youre-closed-down-maybe-its-time-to-open-up-your-curtain/