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.

Yitro: The Anti-Amalekite, Yitro 5776

The Torah can be a confusing book.  Sometimes, the confusion jumps right off the page.  Other times, it only becomes apparent when we start to pay close attention to the details.  But it is the perplexing parts that make our holy book so interesting.  In seeking explanations, we sometimes discover the most profound of God’s lessons for us.

Parashat Yitro is comprised of two major sections.  Chapter eighteen describes Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law Yitro and the establishment of a hierarchical court system.  Chapters nineteen and twenty describe the Israelites’ preparations prior to and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But there is a problem.  These events seem to be out of chronological order.  Is this surprising – the notion that the Torah might have been intentionally written out of order?  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered the possibility.  (BT Zevachim 116a)

The parashah begins, vayishma Yitro – “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…”  (Ex. 18:1)  “What was it, exactly that he heard?” the Talmud asks, adding that whatever it was, it led him to come immediately to the Israelite camp and convert.  As expected, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Yehoshua claims that he heard about the Israelites’ victory, with God’s help, over the Amalekites, prompting him to come right away.  Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i disagrees.  He claims that it was the news of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai that prompted Yitro’s visit.

The first rabbi holds that the story is chronological, and Yitro’s appearance is connected to the preceding battle against Amalek.  The second rabbi holds that the story is out of order, and that Yitro actually arrives some time later, although he does not explain precisely why the text appears this way.

The twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra describes the numerous inconsistencies in the Torah which leads him to the same conclusion, but he offers a reason why.

First of all, chapter eighteen describes Yitro coming to meet Moses at the Israelite encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, but the Torah does not indicate their arrival there until later, in chapter nineteen.

Two.  As part of the reunion Yitro brings burnt offerings and freewill sacrifices to God, but so far no altar has been built.  That will not happen until chapter twenty four, after the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Three.  On their second day together, Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment of the people all day long.  They are coming to him to inquire of God and settle their disputes.  When asked, Moses describes what he is doing:  v’hoda’ti et chukei elohim v’et Torotav – “I make known the laws and teachings of God.”  (Ex. 18:16)  The only problem is, the Torah has not been given yet, so what laws and teachings exactly is Moses making known to them?

Four.  In the Book of Numbers, we again read of Yitro spending time in the Israelite camp.  There, it describes how he declines Moses’ request to travel with them and serve as their guide.  Then, he departs in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus.” (Numbers. 10:11)  It would seem that the account of Yitro’s departure in this morning’s parashah describes the same thing, meaning that it took place some time after the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Further support for this claim appears in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Moses retells the story of the establishment of the judicial system, he describes it immediately before telling how the Israelites set out on their journey from Mt. Sinai after have encamped there for over a year.

Taking all of these inconsistencies into consideration, Ibn Ezra concludes that this morning’s Torah portion is not in chronological order.

But he does not have a problem with that.  According to Ibn Ezra, interrupting the narrative serves an intentional purpose.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read of the evil perpetrated by the Amalekites.  They attacked Israel from the rear, targeting the weak stragglers.  Israel has to go to war.  Through God’s miraculous help, they are victorious.  Afterwards, God announces that God will forever be at war against Amalek.

Chronologically, the Israelites then travel from here to Mt. Sinai, where they prepare to receive God’s revelation.  But first – to us as readers – a point must be made.  The out-of-place story of Yitro makes this point.  Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is juxtaposed to the Amalekites.  Ibn Ezra explains that the Midianites and the Amalekites come from the same place.  They grow up together.  And yet, they develop radically different national characteristics.  Amalek becomes the embodiment of evil, while Midian embodies wisdom and kindness.

Internal biblical evidence supports this.  The Midianites have good relations with the Israelites, as evidenced by several stories that appear elsewhere.  In the Book of Samuel, for example, before King Saul attacks the Amalekites, he first instructs a Midianite tribe called the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.”  (I Sam. 15:6)

This contrast emphasizes that not all non-Israelites are bad.  In fact some of them can be quite good.

This might seem obvious to us.  But remember, we are living in a post-Enlightenment era, in which values of humanism and universal ethics are broadly accepted.  In Ibn Ezra’s time, and in Biblical times, one could not say the same thing.  A person’s group identity was existentially important.  The notion that an individual should be valued on his or her own merits, rather than based on his her membership in a group, is a modern concept.

But there still exists in us much of the pre-modern.  How often do we paint people with broad brushstrokes, making assumptions about others based on their religion, or ethnicity, or birthplace, or where they went to school?  One need only read the paper or watch the news to find our most prominent national figures doing just that.  I suspect that if each of us examined ourselves, we would also find that we are not immune to stereotyping others.

It is significant that, immediately after reading God’s declaration of holy war against Amalek, we encounter Yitro, a non-Jewish priest who gave his daughter in marriage to our greatest prophet.  He is depicted as generous, kind, and wise.  And, he grew up side by side with the Amalekites.  This should serve as an important reminder about the need to check our anger, our suspicions, and our assumptions about others and not allow them to overwhelm us.

After all, our Torah delays the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai in order to tell us about this man: Yitro.