5. Understanding God

Yesodei HaTorah 1:9

If God has no body, what are we to make of terms used by the Torah, including "His feet" (Exodus 24:10), "the finger of God" (ibid. 31:18), "God's hand" (ibid. 9:3), "God's eyes" (Genesis 38:7), "God's ears" (Numbers 11:1) and similar expressions? All of these phrases are meant to relate to the way people think. We are only familiar with physical reality, so the Torah puts things in terms we can understand. We see clearly that they are metaphors from such verses as Deuteronomy 32:41, in which God says, "I will whet My lightning sword." Does God really have a sword? Would He need such a thing if He wanted to kill someone? Just as this is a metaphor, all such descriptions of God that make Him seem as a person are metaphors.

We see proof that these are metaphors from the various prophets’ descriptions of God. Daniel 7:9 describes Him as “dressed in snow white.” Isaiah 63:1 describes Him as wearing “crimson garments from Batzra.” At the Red Sea, Moshe saw God as a mighty warrior (see Exodus 15:3), while at Mount Sinai he perceived Him as a scholar. This demonstrates that God has no form. The prophets merely described aspects of how they perceived things in their visions. The actual reality of the situation cannot be grasped by the human mind. That’s the meaning of Job 11:7, "Can you attain understanding of God? Can you find the limits of the Almighty?"

Yesodei HaTorah 1:10

If God has no form to perceive, what did Moshe mean when he asked God, "Please show me Your glory" (Exodus 33:18)? What he wanted was to understand the truth of God’s existence to the extent that he was capable of grasping it, similar to the way one person knows another person’s face. Because he knows the other’s face, he is able to mentally distinguish this person from other people. Similarly, Moshe asked to understand God well enough to differentiate in his mind the existence of God from that of other beings.

God replied to Moshe that it is not humanly possible for him to fully understand this matter. He did reveal to Moshe that which he was capable of grasping, including matters that no other human would ever know. From this, Moshe was able to discern enough of God’s nature to distinguish Him in his mind from other beings, just as one person can distinguish another when seen from behind if he knows the other person’s build and what he is wearing. This is the meaning of God’s reply, "You will see My back but you will not see My face" (Exodus 33:23).