Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Feb 28, 2024

How Close Can You Get to God?

Illustration: Dorothy Caldwell, blog, “Hidden in the Cleft of the Rock!” (Apr 13, 2010)


            In the famous old joke, the good man of simple faith answers the question, “what is God’s name?” by saying, “Andy.” When queried, he elaborates: It says so in the bible. “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me….”
            Behind the simple faith of that good man is a question that can engage all of us, whether simple or sophisticated. How do you walk with God? How do you talk with God? How do you relate to the Reality that is so fundamentally different from yourself? How does finite me relate to the Infinite and find a way for it to be a “Thou”, a presence, rather than just an abstraction, an “It”?     
            Our Bible story this week covers this ground with dramatic sweep and profound insight. In the popular imagination, the story of the Golden Calf centers on the egregious sin of the Israelites and then the shattering consequences of their punishment. The story has its grisly parts. But the story does not end there. The narrative focus returns to Moses, alone again on the mountain top, praying for God’s mercy, and receiving a second chance at preparing Tablets of the Covenant to bring to the Israelites.  The story is ultimately not only about tragedy. It is about restoration after tragedy.
            In the meantime, Moses reaches a spiritual height that the Bible has not yet disclosed. He successfully intercedes with God to pardon the people as a whole and to remain personally engaged in guiding them forward towards their promised destiny and destination. This is Moses at his greatest.
            And then…. Perhaps flush with his success at being the peacemaker between God and the community….. did Moses ask for one boon too much? Listen to the following exchange:


Illustration: Glorious Glimpse, Covered in the Cleft by BiblePhile Tim. Credit: deviantart.com
He [Moses] said: Show me, pray, Your glory. And He [God}
said, I shall make all My goodness pass in front of you, and I
shall invoke the name of the LORD before you. And I shall
grant grace to whom I grant grace and have compassion for
whom I have compassion.” And He said, “You shall not be
able to see my face, for no human can see me and live.” And
The LORD said, “Look, there is a place with Me, and you
shall take your stance on the crag. And so, when My glory
passes over, I shall put you in the cleft of the crag and shield you
with My palm, until I have passed over. And I shall take away
My palm and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 18:23)

            We understand that Moses asked for something beyond what was appropriate, but what was it? The biblical term kavod, translated here as “glory”, refers to some sort of cloud-like presence in which God is to be found, as in the scene in the Temple in Isaiah 6, where the kavod of God fills the sanctuary space. However we depict it, Moses had sought to know more than is within mortal capabilities.
            Reading this passage—and I have pondered it for over half a century, since my yeshivah teacher first taught it to us in fifth grade—I think that God is letting Moses down easy. God is telling Moses, as I understand this cryptic passage, that while God and human intelligence are incommensurate, what the human mind can understand is the goodness of God.
            One of the key insights of modern philosophy is the demonstration by Immanuel Kant that we can not escape the prison of our own mental perceiving and signifying apparatus.  The world looks the way it looks to us, not because it is automatically just that way, but because our machinery of perception and understanding have certain biases that we can never transcend.  Kant tells that that we know only the way in which the “thing in itself” registers on our consciousness, not how it is in some absolute sense.
            If this is true of the things of this world, then all the more so is it true when the reality we crave to know is God, not confined to the space and time that shape our intuitions and set limits to our imagination.
            God is beyond knowing. But it does NOT follow that God is beyond all relationship. God assures Moses that it is possible to sense God’s goodness passing by. 
            As I have lived and loved and lost, and sometimes won, this truth has become more and more central to me: If you want to connect with the godly, connect with the good. If you want to feel God at work, do good.
            Of course this is not new.  The Rabbis of Old understood it well:

            “Rabbi Hama said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: Follow Adonai your God (Deut. 13:5). What does this mean? It is possible for a mortal to follow God’s presence? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One. As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. The Bible teaches that the Holy One visited the sick: you should visit the sick. The Holy One comforted those who mourned; you should comfort those who mourn. The Holy One buried the dead; you should bury the dead.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a.)  

            We cannot seriously aspire to the level of Moses.  But each of us can walk in the path that he laid out. Quest for God’s presence, but be comforted, when you receive only a portion of what you yearn for, to know that goodness is the path of walking with God.