To Approach the Divine
Whoever among us ever suffered the “slings and arrows” of life more than Job? Who among us knew such pain and tragedy? Who among us has had our faith challenged as Job did? And yet, each of us shares Job’s desire to “see” God, to understand, to know that there was meaning in his suffering.
Let me see you, God!
For Job, God’s mighty dismissal of his cry is an answer in and of itself, for it affirmed to Job God’s existence and that was enough. But for us faith is a constant struggle. We want, we need, we hunger for reassurance. Rabbi Nachman of Breslav taught that the world is a narrow bridge (kol haolam kulo gesher tzar me’od) and our task is to “not be afraid” (lo l’fached klal). But how do we “not be afraid”?
In our moments of doubt and confusion, wouldn’t our lives be much easier if we could be more certain of God? Isn’t that the fundamental driver of Moses’ great plea, “Show me, now, Your glory!”
For us, such a plea is itself a transgression of arrogance, not even worthy of the mighty dismissal Job received. But what about for Moses? He had experienced a forty-day sojourn with God. Was the request so unreasonable coming from him? His experience had certainly taught him that God and man do not occupy the same “frequency” but might it not have been possible for him to “see” God as God?
The Rambam is clear in the Guide that man cannot ever look upon God, to experience God in the limitlessness of His being. This observation is a logical outgrowth from understanding that just as God cannot be reduced to the physical, man can never be elevated to the fully spiritual. That is, that which is limitless can never be limited and that which is limited can never be limitless.
But this truth about God and man does not imply that God shuns man in any way. As Rambam notes, while man cannot know “His essence and true reality” he can glimpse His attributes. In other words, God does allow for man to experience spirituality.
“For man shall not see Me and live.” We cannot be as God but we can be God-like. We can be spiritual beings. By virtue of gracing us with permission to pray, God has allowed us to approach Him directly. Not in a physical sense, certainly, but in the sense that Rabbi Soloveitchik explains as necessary for the religious individual.
Rabbi Soloveitchik understands that man cannot conceal his thoughts and his feelings, his uncertainties and his struggles, his yearnings and his wishes, his despair and his bitterness; he cannot escape the darkness in the depths of his soul. “Prayer is justified because it is impossible to exist without it.”
God fully understands that man cannot be fully man without prayer. We cannot help but to pray. Is it any wonder then, that in this parsha, where Moses seeks to see God, God Himself reveals to Moses the Thirteen Attributes (yud gimel midos), the very attributes that Moses wanted to know as God’s essential nature but can only know as attributes to be imitated (in an attempt to be God-like).
It is true, we cannot know God, but we can glimpse what it might be, just might be, to be almost able to hold His “hand” and speak to Him with our prayers. So it is that all of the Avos, and Moses, and the Prophets “fell before God in supplication, conversing with Him as a man would a friend, laying bare before Him that which was hidden in their hearts.”
“R’ Yochanan said, Were it not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say it. This verse (Hashem passed before him and proclaimed: Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate…) teaches us that God wrapped Himself in a tallis, as a shaliach tzibur who leads the congregation in prayer. He showed Moses the order of prayer and said to him, “Whenever Israel sins, let them perform before Me this order of prayer – the yud gimel midos and I shall forgive them.” (Rosh Hashanah 17b)
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God tells us, I know you want to know Me; I know you want to see My glory; to feel My presence, but that is impossible. I am God. You are human. Nevertheless, you can know Me, be in My presence, through prayer. Look at Me, I am wrapped in talis. Pray to Me. I will answer.
Why this image of God wrapped in tallis?
Maharal explains that a tallis wrapped around one’s head blocks out all distractions, helping one to fully concentrate on prayer. By appearing in this same way, God is saying, Just as you concentrate on your prayer, so too will I concentrate on fulfilling your requests.
Could we ask for a better deal?
Not only does God reveal the most powerful text words of the 13 midos, which we continuously recite during Selichos, the Yomim Noraim and fast days – the most critical days of prayer – but God even reveals the manner in which they should be recited!
Not only does God provide us the gift and grace of prayer but He grants us the techniques that allow us to know Him – not by seeing Him fully but by allowing us to be God-like in our own lives. God gifts us with the ability to imitate His ways. Imperfectly, yes. But God-like nonetheless.
The Thirteen Attributes are not only the means by which we can address God through prayer but they also provide the blueprint by which we can act like God. The yud gimel midos allow us to be Godly!
How? Ma hu, af atah! Just as God is forgiving, compassionate, and merciful so too can we be forgiving, compassionate, and merciful. Even though limited by our physical nature, we can be Godly “just as He”.
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“Show me, now, Your glory!”
To Moses’ plea, God did not show His face but yet showed him His back. Even to Moses, God remained apart and separate. To our own pleas to know God, we are given the gift of prayer and imitation. In Rambam’s estimation, the greatest virtue of man is to become like God. That is, we should make our actions like God’s actions, within the circumscribed limit of our soul enveloped by a physical body.
You should be holy for I am Holy.
God exists beyond our limited comprehension yet He knows our yearning to be close to Him. Yes, He is King but He is simultaneously Father. He is King, beyond our reach. He is Father, close to our hearts.
The world is a narrow bridge. God’s closeness allows us not to be afraid.