A famous theologian would challenge his students with the following question: Where do we find that G-d defied His own cardinal commandment?
Answer: When G-d created man in His own Divine Image He defied the second of the Ten Commandments “You shall not make a carved image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above.”
A true conundrum if you ever heard one.
This story came to my mind in the face of all this recent talk about G-d in wake of the Southeast Asian tsunami.
Just google the words “tsunami” and “God” and you will find hundred of articles addressing “where was God in the tsunami?”
It seems that people of all types – from Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Jewish clergy to atheists and agnostics, from media pundits from one coast to the other, from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times – are weighing in with their thoughts, questions doubts and beliefs about G-d.
This sudden deluge of religious reaction needs to be analyzed. What do we learn about the human race from the fact that G-d becomes the focus of discussion when the critical mass is affected by the news of a major catastrophe?
Opinions about G-d obviously vary from one extreme to the next. From seeing G-d as a helpless Being to an all-powerful One, from being indifferent to non-existent.
What is strikingly missing from this monologue is the question: What will be with us? Is this all about G-d, or do we have a role to play as well in the universe? What personal lessons will we take from all of this? Beyond the outpouring of aid and all the wonderful work of people everywhere toward helping the stricken, which must be appreciated, what long-term affect will this wake-up call have on us?
It’s relatively easy to speak about G-d – whether He brought on this tragedy, or He just helplessly stood by. No one is losing sleep discussing G-d’s silence and mysterious ways. That’s all theology. And G-d is always a convenient “scapegoat” or “crutch” in times of trouble.
What is truly difficult to talk about is our own personal priorities and mission in life.
Frankly, G-d will be fine. He has always been fine, and has survived us all. After all if He is G-d He can take care of Himself. Our concerns shouldn’t be about G-d, but about ourselves.
I would even submit a radical, perhaps sacrilegious statement: Talking about G-d can actually be an escape, a convenient copout, even a form of idol worship, that distracts us from our own Divinely charged responsibilities.
In the Talmud there is a section that discusses the disheartening signs that will identify a spiritually impoverished generation in “the end of days.” Then the Talmud concludes that things will come to a point where people will say “we have no one to rely on but G-d”. Apparently, this final statement is somewhat of a consolation that not all is lost. However a great Rebbe once interpreted that this statement is also part of the problem.
When people give up and say in resignation that “we have no one to rely on but G-d” they are basically declaring that we are helpless and powerless – something that goes against the very core of faith.
Not to suggest that we are responsible for the tsunami or any other tragedy. But at the same time we are never merely passive bystanders, or worse yet, victims, of a harsh life; we are complete partners in the process of refining the world in which we live.
The reason being, because G-d created us in the Divine Image, essentially empowering us with the message: “When your are challenged in any way, even in times of crisis, don’t just look at Me. Look at yourselves – you were created in My image and you have My power to make a difference.”
Yes, we turn to G-d in prayer and we ask and even demand His support and strength. But that’s only half the picture. The other half is that we are G-d’s equal partner and there’s much that we have been empowered to do.
Instead of trying to understand G-d on our terms – in effect creating a G-d in our Image – the exact opposite is true: We should be trying to emulate G-d’s ways, and figuring out how we can transform the universe.
To truly understand this central theme we need not look very far. The story in these week’s Torah portions actually tells us the true story of our time.
Essentially the entire account of the Egyptian exile and exodus documents how people of all backgrounds, including people of faith, deal with suffering and oppression. Beginning with Moses, the epitome of faith, we find a fascinating dialogue between him and G-d about the greatest question in life: “Why?” “Why are you – a good G-d – being cruel to these people?”
But Moses doesn’t suffice with the question. He becomes an active – the most active – participant in the ensuing drama. Frankly, G-d could have freed the people without Moses, without plagues, without anyone’s help. But then again, G-d could have also not allowed the Jews to be enslaved in the first place. Since we’re already in the hypothetical mode, let’s step back even further and realize that G-d could have not created our entire existence in a way that allows for human suffering.
But G-d chose to create our existence just the way it is, and created us in His Image, with the power to lead the way to Redemption. Moses leads the way.
What follows is the most intriguing and complex relationship between man and G-d ever documented. The greatest paradox of all remains the one in which Moses both argues with G-d and simultaneously completely embraces his mission. No excuses. No fears. No copouts. He takes the “bull by the horns” including the way he directly confronts G-d in the process.
What emerges is an entirely new way of looking at G-d – not with the juvenile eyes that see a “white bearded angry, wrathful, force waiting to strike us with lightning when we misbehave.” Not a G-d created in our “human image.” Rather a sophisticated, complicated, yet subtle perspective of G-d – on G-d’s terms.
So cup your ears and listen closely.
When G-d appeared to Moses in the burning bush and charged him with the mission to take the people of Israel out of Egypt, Moses asks G-d in return: “I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they will say, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I tell them? G-d replied to Moses: “I Am who I Am… Tell the children of Israel, ‘I Am (Eh‑he‑yeh) has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
You won’t find a more cryptic statement.
What does “I Am who I Am” mean?!
Explain the sages and the mystics: Moses anticipated the big question that the children of Israel will ask of him. “What is His name?” “Who is this G-d that allows innocent people to suffer? You say that G-d has ‘seen the suffering of His people in Egypt,’ has ‘heard their cries,’ and ‘knows their pain,’ and has therefore sent you to redeem us. Where was He until now?!”
The only answer G-d gives Moses is to tell them “I Am who I Am.” The simple two words “I Am” means that I am true Reality. I just am, period. By saying so, G-d was describing and revealing for the first time the essence of His reality — that is, He exists because he exists.
Human beings understand existence only as a process of cause and effect; we cannot comprehend or even imagine an existence that is undefined, that has no cause, that is totally unlike our own. Something exists only after we prove how and why it exists. On the other hand, G-d has no cause other than Himself; nothing preceded Him; His being derives from His own self. G-d’s existence must exist, for it is true reality.
So G-d is an existence that is unlike any existence, “a non-existential existence.” It is real because it is real; a reality that exists because it exists: “I am who I am.” To truly know G-d’s nature, we would have to be like G-d.
Therefore, we cannot define G-d. If a person were to use the human mind to prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that G-d exists, it would not be G-d that he discovered; it would only be a product of the human mind.
This was G-d’s answer to the people’s outcry, “What is His name?!” Tell the children of Israel, said G-d to Moses, that My name is Eh‑he‑yeh, “I am.” Where was I all these years? I was with you. I am being, I am existence, I am reality. I am in your tears, in your cries, in your spilled blood. I Am with you in your present distress, and I shall be with you in future exiles and persecutions (Rashi).
G-d manifests Himself in many ways in our lives, as expressed in the different names of G-d. Each name represents another dimension of Divine revelation. But these are all defined revelations and expressions of G-d. In pain and suffering, where there is no revelation, the essence itself emerges – G-d as the very core of reality, that pervades and transcends every form of experience, and thus relates equally to them all, joyous and painful alike.
Reality – “I am” – is real not because we’re comfortable with it and comprehend it. And it doesn’t become less real if we don’t understand it and are disturbed by it. If G-d is Reality (I say “if” just for the skeptic within us all), then His reality is not weakened by tragedy, as it’s not strengthened by ecstasy. It is because it is. And it is the essence of all there is – both of adorned beauty and of the barren “thorn bush.”
Indeed, one can even say that Reality precedes – and put in place – the rules and definitions o what we call “joy” and “pain.”
G-d told Moses – and by extension tells us all: “I am there with you, suffering with you, praying for redemption together with you, and being redeemed with you.”
We are in a complex, symbiotic relationship with G-d. As complex as our intimate lives are, as complicated as our personal relationships may be, our relationship with G-d is infinitely more complex. Yet it is also simple.
All sorts of options are being currently offered in surveys and essays about G-d’s role in the tsunami and in disasters – natural or other – in general. Are they Divine punishments, tests or mysterious ways, or is G-d uninvolved either because He chooses not to be, or is unable to be? Or do we simply deny G-d’s existence in the first place, and thus attribute disasters to the course of another mother called “nature” (why not father?).
That seems to cover the entire spectrum of possible options.
Almost. But not quite.
All these options are based on linear human thinking. Either G-d is causing the tsunami or not. Either G-d exists or He does not. It’s a yes or no type of question.
But G-d is not linear, and our limited logic cannot fathom G-d’s “I Am” type of Reality – a Reality where there is no paradox.
The option not mentioned is this: G-d is involved and not involved at the same time. Yes, its’ all part of G-d’s mysterious ways. But above all, G-d is in a complex relationship with us and we too are in some mysterious way involved in world dynamics.
Not necessarily on an individual level, and not as retribution – but us and G-d are in “the same boat together” both in joy and in tragedy. What that exactly means for G-d is His business. What it means for us is our business. And what it means for us is that we have to get our act together.
Yes, we may not be able to directly prevent tsunamis, earthquakes and mudslides. But we can correct the psychological and spiritual “tsunamis,” quakes and slides in our lives. And one way or another the microcosm affects the macrocosm. The butterfly effect is not just about a breath in Baltimore creating a typhoon in Singapore. It’s about a shift in consciousness in one end of the world generating a reaction at the other end. A simple gesture, an unadorned action between you and your neighbor alters the universe forever.
When we say that we do not know G-d’s mysterious ways, “My thoughts are unlike yours…,” that is not a claim of ignorance but a claim of knowledge. It is saying that we want to get beyond our linear way of thinking and access the way G-d “thinks.”
If nothing else perhaps tragedy – and all the grand questions it raises – compels and propels us to this essential place of paradox, and to begin thinking like G-d. Not to try fitting G-d into our preconceived models, but to fit ourselves into His grand model.
Tragic moments – when our entire template is shred to pieces, and our secure foundations are shaken to the core – is the junction where our existence reaches and recognizes its own boundaries; where our reality meets (or collides with) another, higher reality, with a dissonance that can often be unbearable.
But it is at these intersections – and in these moments – where a new birth is begins. Birth pains are the result of two realities colliding.
When life doesn’t seem to be working according to our plans, G-d’s “I Am who I Am” is challenging our defined “I am” identities.
In response, our calling is not to succumb to the temptation and address the challenge by trying to neatly fit G-d into our “image” (“You shall not make a carved image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above”). Rather, we must remember that we were created in the Divine Image. As such, we can and must relate to the Divine “I Am” reality.
And in doing so we become divine ourselves. Because the ultimate goal is the fusion of our identities and the Divine identity.
After all our discussions about G-d on our terms, the time has come to relate to G-d on His terms. (Don’t be afraid: our terms will not be compromised).
Are you ready?