The Man Behind the Curtain
We have a rather complicated Ark. When I go to a new congregation, the one honor that scares me is opening the Ark. Because every Ark is a little different. And, it’s easy to get mixed up. And, everyone is watching you.
And, ours is particularly difficult. There are two sets of metal doors. And, you have to push them all the way back on the track. And, sometimes they get stuck or go off the track. And, then there is a drawstring to pull to open the curtain. And, it’s not always easy to find it.
And, so sometimes things go wrong. I am told that in the days when Rabbi Rose was here, a guest of the bar mitzvah closed the curtain of the Ark when he was still inside the Ark. And, so he was trapped inside the Ark. And, he panicked and he couldn’t find the drawstring to re-open the curtain. So, what you saw was the outline of a figure frantically pushing against the curtain trying to find a way out.
And, Rabbi Rose, without skipping a beat turned to the congregation and said, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” That, of course, is a quote from a very famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. It’s the moment that Todo, the dog, pulls back the curtain and reveals that the mysterious wizard with the booming voice is not a wizard at all, but just a man, a carnival barker with a microphone, posing as a supernatural figure. And, the wizard, trying to preserve the ruse declares “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” But, of course, it is too late.
This scene can be seen as a parable to express very cogently the attitude towards many in the modern world towards religion. The wizard in the parable is God. Religion depends on our believing that the universe is a mysterious place which we will never fully understand. And, behind the mystery is a figure even more mysterious and incomprehensible—God, who alone can help us with our troubles.
But, according to the parable of Oz, there is no wizard. Religion is a fraud, a lie. The mystery is manufactured. Science has pulled back the curtain and revealed to us that there is no mystery at the heart of the universe. Everything can be explained rationally. And, what we thought we needed God to do we can really do for ourselves.
Now, the Wizard of Oz was a very bold statement in its time. But, we’ve learned a few things since then. So, I’d like to take a second look at what I think is really going on in this scene, and what it says about us.
I think the Wizard of Oz is written from the point of view of a child who is on the verge of growing up. Dorothy, our hero, is a young teenager. And, from the standpoint of a child who is attracted to the idea of growing up, adults are trying to hide something from us.
My granddaughter, Daniella, who is 16 months old has become convinced that our freezer hold great treasures. We don’t like her to go in there because she throws everything out and it’s a pain to clean it up. But, the more we resist, the more she is convinced we’re hiding something really good in there.
These tales are basically variations on the story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are like small children in the Garden of Eden. They have everything they want. But, there is one door that is closed to them. God says to them: You may not eat from the Tree of the Fruit of Knowledge. From a child’s perspective, Adam and Eve’s, this is another way for God to say to Adam and Eve: I want you to remain ignorant. I want the world to be a mystery to you. Maybe God just didn’t want them in the freezer! But, being children, Eve and Adam suspect God is hiding something from them. And, they want to know what it is.
So, they eat from the fruit. And, they become like God, adults, just like the serpent said. And, what do adults do? They hide things. That’s the very first thing that Adam and Eve do in their adult life. They hide themselves in the trees, and they make clothes for themselves to hide their bodies.
Now, from a certain point of view, this is dishonest. And, it’s striking that in this first coming of age tale in human history, becoming an adult is associated with dishonesty. What Adam and Eve do is a coverup. They’ve done something wrong, and now they are trying to hide it.
This reflects the romantic view that it is better to be a child than an adult, because children are more open and honest than adults. The classic story about this is The Emperor’s Clothes. The adults in the story are all liars. They don’t say what they really feel. Only the child in the story has the courage to tell the emperor that he isn’t wearing anything. That’s because children are comfortable with nakedness. And, adults are not.
I think this explains what is going on in today’s parasha, Acharei Mot. The Rabbis tell us that the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, were in a hurry to grow up. They said to each other: “When are those two old guys, Moses and Aaron, going to get out of the way, so that we can take over the leadership.”
So, what did Nadav and Avihu do? They pulled back the curtain. Central to the worship of God in the days of the Torah was the mystery of God behind the curtain. No one was allowed to go behind that curtain except for Aaron on Yom Kippur. And, even then, he filled the tent with smoky incense, so he couldn’t really see anything.
Nadav and Avihu didn’t want to obey these rules. Like many children, they believed that where there is a curtain, there is a coverup. And, they wanted to create a relationship with God where there was no barrier, no curtain. No clothing. No mystery. No boundaries.
This all sounds very familiar to me, because I am a sixties kid. I grew up in the late 1960’s where as young adults we wanted to go back to the Garden of Eden. We lived on farms and communes. We saw anything that placed a barrier between us and Nature as dishonest, a coverup.
Most of all clothing. Clothing was the embodiment of human pretense. That’s why the quintessential Broadway show at the time was HAIR in which all the actors portraying the 60’s revolution were naked. And, the arch-enemy of the revolution was Richard Nixon who embodied everything we feared adults were up to—the cover up.
And, it’s so interesting to me that in the story of the Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster which I’ve quoted so many times, what does this young teenage boy do to rebel against his parents? He takes off his clothes. Clothing is a symbol of the inauthenticity he claims to fear. But, it is also a symbol of his having to accept discipline and limits. Wearing clothes is a way for us to say: yes, we cannot say anything on our minds. We cannot have anything we want.
So, we could see the story of Dorothy and the story of Nadav and Avihu and the story of Hair as stories about children who want to grow up and replace their parents. Or, maybe, they are stories about children who are afraid to grow up and are making one last ditch effort to remain children forever.
In the end, it is Adam and Eve who make the choice to grow up. They are drawn to the curtain. They want to live in a world in which some doors are closed to them, a world in which there is still some mystery, a world which wears clothes. What’s lost in a world which wears clothes is a certain innocence and openness which we associate with very young children.
But, what’s gained when there is a curtain to pull back is the joy of discovery. The greatest human experience of all is the experience of love. And, love is an adult experience. For love, we need a curtain. For love, we need modesty as well as openness. We need mystery as well as discovery.
That’s why on our wedding day, there is a thin veil, a curtain separating the bride and the groom. Love is a game of hide and seek. The greatest gift anyone can give to us is to be curious about what is behind our curtain—to say to us “there is more to you than meets the eye. And, I am willing to make the effort to get to know the deepest part of you.”
We want to be found, and to be found implies that there is some mystery to us, there is a hidden treasure at our core. And, equally, we want to seek. We want to have the experience of Adam, who after a long search, exclaimed with joy, “Zot ha’paam”—“this one is for me. I’ve found a soul mate”. This is the thrill of discovery.
Growing up means learning to see the curtain as our friend, not our enemy. This is the path of adulthood. This is the path of true wizardry.