By Yochanan Gordon
We have always been taught that G‑d, in his infinitude, is beyond anthropomorphic description. Throughout Scripture and our prayers there are references to G‑d’s might, His right arm, His left arm, greatness, humility, and splendor, repeatedly raising the question regarding these seemingly limiting portrayals of an infinite G‑d. What I want to address in this essay is what it means to see G‑d, based on Moshe and Klal Yisrael’s repeated requests to see rather than hear the word of G‑d.
Moshe Rabbeinu, in colloquial terms, is the go-to guy or the middleman between the Jews and G‑d. The Torah describes Moshe as the greatest prophet to ever walk the earth; his prophecy was received clearly, without rhyme, riddle, or the need to decode the message that was being conveyed. So when Moshe stood at Sinai with the Jews when the Torah was given, the Jews questioned Moshe regarding their inability to see G‑d as opposed to hearing His commandments from Moshe, the intermediary. Rashi concludes his comments on that verse with the words, “Retzoneinu liros es Malkeinu”—our will is to see our King.
How can we understand this notion of seeing something which in its very essence is beyond corporeality and is completely ethereal? Further, how could it be taken for granted that Moshe is this hybrid creation that could enter heaven, stay for 40 days and nights without eating or drinking, and in a blink be back on earth living amongst his people, albeit as a divinely appointed messenger of the people? We know beyond a doubt that Moshe was born in the manner all of us are born. So if we are hard-pressed to conceive the notion of a finite people seeing an infinite Creator, how can we understand Moshe’s rapport with G‑d notwithstanding his own physical limitations?
Addressing the last question first, it’s important to understand that not all Jews were created equal. The notion exists in certain circles that G‑d has given us all the ability to become Torah scholars and leaders of our generation. This is certainly not the case. The Gemara asserts that prior to creation G‑d saw that tzaddikim will be few and far between and He therefore scattered them throughout history to exist in every generation. What is this tzaddik that the Gemara is talking about? Flipping through the gedolim booklets of P’eylim and Lev L’achim reveals that there are thousands of great men today, as there were in every generation for hundreds of years. Obviously there is more to being a tzaddik than gaining a mastery of Shas, poskim, and halachah.
It seems clear that the fact that we were put here means that we have the ability to fulfill our purpose in this world; but to assume that everyone has the same tafkid or purpose in existence is certainly inaccurate. Certain select personalities were endowed with righteous souls who were meant from the outset to lead the people in their generation. It says in the Zohar, “Ispashtusa d’Moshe bechol dara v’dara,” which means that every generation contains a leader that is part and parcel of Moshe Rabbeinu in his ability to communicate with and convey the will of G‑d to the people.
Hearing is not seeing. When we hear something, we first receive the details of the message and then we draw a picture in our mind based on the information that was imparted to us. Regarding seeing, we first see the big picture and then realize the nuances and minute details of the picture that we were shown. The picture we paint for ourselves was based on our limited understanding. However, when we are shown a picture, while everyone is drawn to a different aspect or element of the picture and will therefore highlight different messages within it, each of those perspectives are accurate and substantiated. Whereas the message that was received through hearing is not necessarily the message that was intended, and that is not the fault of the one imparting the message but rather the one receiving the message.
We have seen of late what seems to be inordinate tragedy. I can’t remember a time when day in and day out reports of shootings, massacres, and people being pushed in front of trains occupied the headlines. Besides the stories that make the news there are countless others that don’t get reported.
For people who subscribe to a religious lifestyle and possess deeply ingrained faith in G‑d, perhaps the most difficult aspect of these tragedies is reconciling His eternal goodness with such seemingly ghastly acts. We hold our head in shock, screaming from the depths of our being: How much longer will we have to endure such suffering? The uncertainty is what confounds us most. If we were just shown unmistakably that everything in this world is for our benefit, then half the horror would fall away. Despite all the davening, learning, and focus on character refinement and faith in G‑d that we practice, the smokescreen of exile obscures our vision, causing us to confront this sense of uncertainty and insecurity at every turn. This is a manifestation of living in a world of hearing as opposed to seeing.
When Moshe was trying to reconcile that perpetual question of why bad things happen to good people and why the evil prosper in this world, he asked G‑d, “Show me your glory,” and G‑d responded that you can only see Me from an obscured angle. At the giving of the Torah, the Jews requested through Moshe, “Retzoneinu liros es Malkeinu,” and as Rashi states, “Eino domeh hashomei’a mipi shaliach lishomei’a mipi Hamelech.” To see means to know with perfect clarity why things happen the way they do.
However, for that G‑d did not need to create the world and give the Torah to us. He could have kept the Torah in Heaven for the angels to delight in, as they had originally requested when Moshe ascended to receive the Torah.
Part of our humanity is our inability to see the Divine. G‑d willed that we tap into our reservoirs of faith and, despite the setbacks and obstacles, we believe that ultimately everything we experience in this world is for the good. Perhaps if we use our hearing abilities strongly enough and we tap into our deeply embedded faith in G‑d, it will ultimately give us the ability to see, as it says about the time to come, “Every eye will see the return of G‑d to Zion soon in our days.” v
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