Rabbi Shneur Zalman was in prison falsely accused by a Russian prosecutor and awaiting trial.
One of the prison guards who secretly revered the rabbi for his human qualities, approached him with a tedious question: why would a supposedly omniscient God turn to Adam and ask him “where are you?”
The rabbi looked into his eyes and replied: “In every era, God calls to every man: ‘Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’ God says something like this: ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you?’”
The guard was taken aback by the fact that the rabbi knew exactly how old he was. He laid his hands on the rabbi’s shoulder and congratulated him, but as he left the cell his heart trembled.
The bible is filled with such questions, many of them so subtle that one easily skips them over.
The first ever question is the one we find in the anecdote from Martin Buber’s book The Way of Man: ‘where are you?’ The rabbi helped the guard see that the question is not meant for Adam alone (it resounds in the heart of each one of us at some point in our life), and secondly that God doesn’t need an answer to this question, Adam does.
When was the last time I was honest enough with myself or another person I trust, to take stock of my life?
Adam goes hiding from God because he is filled with a deep sense of guilt and shame, both very familiar feelings. The irony is that while Adam thinks he has gone hiding from God, he has actually gone hiding from his own self, from his story and from the consequences of his actions.
While he hides, Adam becomes less sure of his identity, he cultivates a sense of blame unto Eve, his companion, and carves in his heart an image of a fearful God from whom he has to escape.
‘Where are you?’ is that stock-taking type of question I gently learn to ask myself a bit more frequently. In times of crises, whether it is a relationship that has hit the wall, a job I just lost or a sickness affecting me or a loved one, we are confronted by a ‘where are you?’
Some of us pluck up the courage to start answering the question, taking a deep breath and starting over. Some of us, however, are more hesitant and feel the question is too heavy, so we choose to unburden ourselves and hide in plain sight. When was the last time I was honest enough with myself or another person I trust, to take stock of my life?
Being fully human is also about noticing when people around us are hiding, maybe trapped in their insecurities, waiting for us to ask them “where are you?”.
Unfortunately, our frequent posting and tweeting is a false indicator of how willing we are to be an open book with ourselves or the people we can really trust.
In our biblical story, Adam assumed that behind God’s question was a loaded gun fit with the right punishment. Instead we read that God clothed both him and Eve to take away their shame.
To dare asking about someone’s real whereabouts is to care, to spin out of our ego-trips and navel-gazing, and give dignity and renewed hope.
To be truly human is to come out of hiding. It might feel safer to hide but it is not what makes us human.
Fr Alex Zammit is a religious priest from the Missionary Society of St Paul. He currently resides in Rome studying for a Master’s in Missiology at the Gregorian University.
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