How Close Is God?

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 17, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

From his first encounter with God at the burning bush, Moses displayed a penchant for deep knowledge. He needed to comprehend God before he was ready to face Israel and Pharaoh. He demanded to know God’s name, the key to God’s being. This week again, after the debacle of the Golden Calf, Moses returns for more illumination. To be chosen requires understanding the chooser.

Each time, God’s response is elusive, revealing no more than a tad of a reality far beyond human comprehension. At the bush, without benefit of a specific name, Moses learns of God’s enduring presence. This time, the Torah slips into the language of metaphor. No human, not even Moses, can do better than catch a fleeting glimpse of God’s back. In response to Moses’ plea, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence (Exodus 33:18),” God offers a small concession: “See, there is a place (makom) near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen (Exodus 33:21-23).”

Despite the vivid intimacy of the image, the message is one of intellectual austerity. The grandeur of God will forever elude our grasp. Hence the adamant biblical refusal to depict God in art. A part can so readily be mistaken for the whole. A midrash cited by Rashi on the word “place – makom” transforms the poetry into philosophy: God does not state that I am here in this place, but rather that there is this place by Me, to wit, the place that I occupy is subordinate to Me, and not the opposite, that I am subordinate to the place that I occupy. Or put differently, I encompass the world; the world does not encompass Me (B’reishit Rabba 68:9: Shemot Rabba 45:6).

This world view prompted the rabbis to designate the word “place (makom)” as one of the many names of God, with each relating to but one aspect. I deem it to be among the grandest because of its infinite expansiveness, as suitable for the universe of the Hubble Space Telescope as for that of Ptolemy or Galileo. Although given the Greek names panentheismus only at the turn of the 18th century, the idea of the world being in God was a staple of Jewish and Christian mystics throughout the Middle Ages. Thus a German Jewish pietist of the 12th century could say of God: “Everything is in Thee, and Thou art in everything; Thou fillest everything and dost encompass it; when everything was created, Thou wast in everything; before everything was created, Thou wast everything (G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 108).”

Yet as this passage makes clear, the power of the name Makom does not derive solely from its ability to do justice to God’s grandeur. It implies also the reassurance that God is always nearby; there is no corner of the cosmos that is bereft of God’s presence. I believe this is to be the reason that the words of comfort offered those in mourning after burial at the cemetery and in their homes during shivaconspicuously invoke God as ha-makom: “May God (ha-Makom) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” At this moment of darkness and chaos, we are fortified by the faith that we have not been thrown into a maelstrom of meaninglessness. It is not God’s grandeur but immanence that we need to be reminded of. If all that exists is but a part of God, then we are never alone or abandoned no matter how bereft we might feel. God as Makom accords with the needs of our heart as well as with the dictates of our mind.

In short, the name Makom (place) embodies the paradox which informs the Jewish experience of God. God is both remote and nearby, awesome and intimate, impersonal and caring. Is that not the wisdom that Moses garners after the Golden Calf? The overwhelming mystery of God is not incompatible with God’s concern and compassion. True, we humans are unequipped to comprehend very much of the nature of God, yet we are wired to sense God’s proximity. From the cleft of the rock, Moses is briefly exposed not only to the partial vision of God’s back, but also to the warmth of God’s grace. One without the other would do violence to both the human and divine.

Time and again the poets and pietists of Judaism gave expression to the tension between a God beyond depiction and a God who is closer to us than our own soul, nowhere more gloriously than inAdon Olam, the meditation which appears so often in our liturgy. While in the first three stanzas, the poet speaks in the voice of the philosopher, contemplating the eternity, power and uniqueness of God, the creator of the cosmos, in the final two, he shifts to avowing with fervor that this same God is the ballast and soul mate of his own life. Grandeur and grace are not irreconcilable, only refractions of the divine as filtered through the prism of Jewish consciousness. Adon Olam captures the spirit of our parasha better than any commentary, especially in the splendid new translation in Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (p. 54).

Before creation shaped the world,
God, eternal, reigned alone;
but only with creation done
could God as Sovereign be known.
When all is ended, God alone 
will reign in awesome majesty,
God was, God is, always will be
glorious in eternity.
God is unique and without peer, 
with none at all to be compared,
Without beginning, endlessly,
God’s vast dominion is not shared.
But still – my God, my only hope,
my one true refuge in distress, 
my shelter sure, my cup of life,
with goodness real and limitless.
I place my spirit in God’s care;
my body too can feel God near.
When I sleep, as when I wake, 
God is with me; I have no fear. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld