Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner
Director, Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership
The essence of the festival Shavuot is clearly the concept of revelation. Yet revelation itself is a paradox that cannot be unpacked. To bridge the infinite distance between the finite and the infinite is a contradiction in terms. Or in the words of the medieval poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol, לו ידעתיו הייתיו – “If I could know Him, I would be Him.”
Still, the concept of revelation is central to all Jewish theology and practice. Perhaps because of this conundrum, the Torah purposely obfuscates the moment of theophany and describes the encounter of the human with the Divine as taking place in a cloud or mist.
About two years ago, I overheard my son in-law ask my two-year-old granddaughter, “Where is God”? My jaw dropped when she answered: “Wherever people let him in.” My son- in-law was quite pleased to have initiated his daughter into the world of Hassidic philosophy.
Epigrams and child prodigies notwithstanding, an oft-quoted verse in Isaiah (55:6) suggests that not all moments and circumstances are alike: “Seek God where He is to be found; call to Him when he is close.”
Various commentaries to the verse (see Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashana 18a) identify God’s closeness alternatively as the days of the month of Ellul, as the ten days of repentance, or as the situation of communal –as opposed to private– prayer. However, I am partial to the more audacious suggestion of the Zohar (Bereishit Vayera 105b): “Sometimes God is found and sometimes –not.”
This formulation reminds me of a Hassidic parable. An old man comes upon a small child in tears and asks: “Why are you crying, little one?” The child answered, “Because I am hiding and no one is looking for me.” The old man began to cry as well. “So too with God: God is hiding and no one is searching!”
To elaborate, there are two reasons people do not search: either because they’ve forgotten God, or because they think they’ve found God. The latter is invariably an illusion, as the infinite and the ineffable are, by definition, never to be captured. To apprehend is to reduce; to presume to have found God is both dangerous in its false clarity and destructive of the one activity – the endless search –that may actually bring godliness into life. Paradoxically, moments of doubt and unanswered questions foster spiritual search; the hubris of certainty obviates the search and freezes true yearning for the Divine.
Three Biblical passages and their associative imagery come to mind:
Vayikra 16:12-13, concerning the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, describes the casting of frankincense upon the altar of the temple, whereupon a “cloud of incense covers” the inner holy space.
Exodus 20:17, regarding the revelation at Sinai, describes a cloud descending upon the mountain and Moses “approaching the mist in which God is to be found.”
In Genesis 22:13, the verse that provides relief from the terrible test of the Binding of Isaac, and that provides our first encounter with the shofar (ram’s horn), adds the final image to the “cloud cover” and the “mist” of Leviticus and Exodus.
“And Abraham lifted his eyes and saw: behold a ram — its horns caught in the thicket”.
If God is to be found in the mist, we are to approach not with presumptuous clarity, but rather in utter humility and vulnerable uncertainty.
The thicket, the cloud, and the mist – these are the places where we are invited in to encounter God. Not in the landscape of a broad and bright horizon, nor in the presumed certainties of our own formulations. In those places we will find only ourselves and the echo of our own voices. But if we dare to enter with humility and submission into the space of the thicket, the mist, and the cloud, then maybe… maybe…?
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