What Does God Look Like? – Yitro 5779

What does God look like?

Can we ask such a blasphemous question?  God, after all, is not tied down by a body.  God is transcendent.  In the prayer Yigdal, which summarizes Maimonides’ thirteen attributes of faith, we sing Ein lo d’mut haguf, v’aeinu guf – “God has no form of a body, nor is God a body.”

So what does God look like?  Most of us do have some idea of what God looks like buried in the backs of our minds.  That image probably goes back to childhood, before we had a chance to build up all of our intellectual, rationalistic ideas about God being formless.

When I was a little kid, I remember my father being a news junkie.  So it is not a surprise that my earliest memory of God is in the form of an older man with white hair sitting behind a desk reading the news.  In this image, God bears a striking resemblance to Walter Cronkite.

In Parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  But as much as we talk about the receiving of the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism, the moment that we coalesced and joined together to form the Jewish people, there is an event that is even more significant.  This event occurs just before the commandments are given.

It is the simultaneous encounter of the entire Jewish people with God.  It is an experience that cannot be described in words, just like all mystical experiences.

The Torah tries to give us a sense of what it was like with nature terms:  “… there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled…  Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  (Ex. 19:16-20)

This is the encounter of God: thunder… lightning… a dense cloud… the blast of a shofar… fire… smoke… and trembling.

What does this sound like to you?  To me, it seems like a massive volcanic eruption.  But is that it?  Is that the essence of what they, and really all of us, experienced during that moment of revelation?

I do not think so. While this tremendous, mind blowing event did take place, there was also a moment of deep, intimate, and personal connection.  A passage in the Book of Kings captures that moment.

The Prophet Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath and eventually winds up at Mt. Sinai  There, he experiences God’s Presence in a way that should sound similar.  

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice.  (I Kings 19:11-12)

Wind, earthquake, fire.  This sounds pretty similar to what the Israelites encounter in Parashat Terumah.  But the Elijah text explicitly states that the Essence of God is not in any of phenomena.  God is found in the still small voice, kol demamah dakah.  It takes a true Prophet like Moses, or Elijah, to hear God’s voice within, or despite, the cacophony.

After the moment ends, it is impossible to accurately describe what just happened.  So the Torah describes natural phenomena that overwhelm the senses.  Too much sound, too much light, too much noise, the ground quaking.  It is sensory overload.

Either that or a really loud rock concert.  But who can a hear a still small voice at a rock concert?  Only the Prophet.

That is why the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”  The sensory overload is too much for them to handle, so they send Moses.

That is one way of looking at the Revelation at Mout Sinai.

A midrash from a medieval collection called Midrash Tanhuma takes a different approach entirely.  It embraces anthropomorphism unabashedly.  God is a person.  And not only that, but God has wardrobe changes to suit the occasion.  God appears in a different human form in each time and place in which God is needed.

At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is a heroic warrior battling on Israel’s behalf.  At Sinai, when God presents the Torah to Israel, God appears as a sofer, a scribe.  In the days of King Solomon, who tradition holds wrote the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, God takes the form of a strapping young man. In the days of the Prophet Daniel, God appears as a wise old man teaching Torah.  (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16)

The point is that God appears to the Israelites in ways that befit the needs of the moment.  Let’s extend the metaphor into the present.  When we are in the hospital being treated for cancer, maybe God takes on the appearance of a doctor, dressed in scrubs and wearing a stethoscope.  Or when our souls are lonely and in need of relief, God can look like a lover, who comforts us with an embrace.  For a young boy who looks up to his news-watching father, God takes the form of a news anchor, conveying confidence and security.

I suspect that this midrash would make Maimonides uncomfortable.  He insists throughout his writings that God cannot be described positively in any way, whatsoever.  Language, which is finite, is incapable of representing the infinite.  But what can we do?  It is the only way we have to communicate.

Maimonides insists that any anthropomorphic language of God in the Torah must be understand as metaphor.  We naturally turn to images and symbols that already carry recognizable cultural meaning when we try to convey a transformative encounter.  Maimonidew is fully aware, however, that the majority of people in his own day do not understand this.

Today, it seems to me that many of us have embraced Maimonides’ rejection of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God without taking the next step, which is to embrace them anyways, knowing full well that they are metaphors.

We are understandably not comfortable embracing the notion that God takes human forms because it sounds so similar to certain other religions, or because it does not fit in to our modern, supposedly rational way of understanding the world.  

But the drawback is that we lose a powerful way to experience the Divine and to subsequently express that experience.  Instead, we get stuck in an intellectual head-game in which we are comfortable talking about what God is not, but never able to discuss what God is.  I wish I could be more comfortable living in both worlds.

What does God look like?  I know that God is distant, invisible, and unknowable.  But God is also a warrior, a scribe, a doctor, and even a news anchor.  The challenge is to embrace the metaphors while recognizing that they are (merely) metaphors for the Indescribable.

Ki Tov Hu – Shemot 5773

When my sister in law had her first child, she called up my wife and asked her, “Isn’t my baby the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?”

To which my wife responded, “No. My baby is the most beautiful baby ever.”

Of course, they are both right. To every mother, her baby is the most beautiful, and she would do anything for that child.

This is a phenomenon that goes all the way back to the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been oppressing them. After trying, unsuccessfully, to compel the midwives to murder any male child born to an Israelite, Pharaoh issues a more specific decree: all Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.

Then, in chapter two, the camera zooms in from the wide angle lens to focus in on one particular baby boy: “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.”

And so begins the story of Moses. A couple of problems with our text.

First, as illustrated by the interaction between my wife and sister in law, there is nothing extraordinary about a mother looking at her newborn baby boy and noticing how beautiful he is.

Second, there is also nothing unusual about a mother trying to defy a horrific decree by keeping her son in hiding.

As Nachmanides says: “All women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all hide them to the best of their ability; there is no need to say that he was beautiful to explain why she hid him.”*1*

The universality of a mother and father’s love of her or his child is a given, across all time and culture. So why would the Torah take the time to mention something so obvious?

Naturally, there are a number of commentaries from our tradition that give us additional insight into Moses’ birth. The Torah states, Vatere oto ki tov hu – “When she saw how tov he was…”*2* What does tov mean in this context? The Talmud offers five explanations*3*:

“Rabbi Meir says: His name was Tov” Remember that he does not receive the name Moshe until the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh rescues him from the Nile River. Tov was his birth name.

“Rabbi Judah says: His name was Tuviah” – This answer is similar to the first one, with two additional letters, yud, heh. These are letters from the name of God. It is common for biblical names to incorporate the Divine name.

“Rabbi Nehemiah says: [She foresaw that he would be] worthy of prophecy” – That is to say, Moses’ mother saw something in him that was not typical. Guided herself perhaps through prophecy, she saw God’s presence in this child in a way that made her confident he would be saved if she took extraordinary measures, which might explain why she sent him off in a basket down the Nile River.

The Talmud’s final two explanations are based on another appearance of the word tov in the Torah: Va’yar elohim et ha’or ki tov*4* – “And God saw that the light was tov.”

The word tov appears seven times in the account of creation. It indicates God’s satisfaction that each of those things that are declared tov have been made complete. The Talmud’s fourth explanation builds on this.

“Others say: He was born circumcised” Circumcision is the perfection, or completion, of the male body. So when Moses’ mother sees him and declares him to be tov, it means that he came out circumcised.

Finally, the last explanation is by the Sages: “At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light — it is written here, ‘And she saw that he was tov,’ and elsewhere it is written: ‘And God saw that the light was tov.'” Moses came out glowing. He was glowing with potential, a new creation. Like the light that God created and separated from darkness on the first day, Moses’ birth heralds the dawn of something new.

Moses is certainly an extraordinary human being. He deserves to have a a story recorded in the Torah about his birth. But the truth is, every child born is beautiful, tov, in all of these senses. Beautiful, complete, perfect, blameless. A continuation of creation. But more than just tov in the present, in that miraculous moment of coming into being. A new human being is also tov in the sense of containing the potential for redemption.

That is why we welcome Elijah the Prophet at a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat ceremony. Elijah, Jewish tradition teaches, will announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world. Every baby who is born has the potential to bring the world closer to redemption.

This is why, in our family, we tell our children “I can’t wait to see who you will become.”

This past week, the children of Newtown went back to school for the first time. Our nation is still going through a process of soul-searching after the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school. Those twenty children, all of them tovim: beautiful, perfect creations, contained within them so much potential for goodness in our world.

The tragedy has opened up a conversation about violence in our society, gun control, mental health services, violent video games, eroding moral values, and more. These are important conversations to have. While the connections between any one particular policy issue and different outcomes is often difficult to establish, there is a widespread sense that we are off course, and not doing enough to protect and cultivate the tov in our children.

Many faith communities are getting involved in these issues, including among American Jews. The leadership of Conservative Judaism, representing all of the various bodies of the movement, have recently reiterated its call for tighter regulations of the sale of guns and ammunition through adoption of common sense gun policies.

I am skeptical, given our fractured society, whether anything will be done.

But I want to come back to Nachmanides, who stated the obvious, declared, and I’ll take the liberty of making a couple of slight adjustments “All men and women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all protect them to the best of their ability…”

We may think we are doing the best we can in our own sheltered communities. But we are part of a much larger society, in which the evidence would suggest that we are falling short of Nachmanides’ assumption. We are not protecting our kids to the best of our ability. And that has to change.

When Moses was born, light filled the room. When his mother saw it, she saw his beauty, his potential, his ability to bring goodness into the world, and she declared him tov. Every child fills our world with light. It is up to us to recognize it and build a society in which it can shine.

*1*Commentary on Exodus 2:2

*2*Exodus 2:2

*3*BT Sotah 12a

*4*Genesis 1:4