Ki Tissa: Questioning God

The Hebrew term for the penitent, “ĥozer biteshuva,” and its modern Israeli corollary, the “ĥozer beshe’ela,” posit the believer as a person of answers and the non-believer as a person of questions. The original connotation of “teshuva,” “returning,” has thus taken a back seat to the more recent connotation, “answer.” It follows that the penitent is no longer one who returns to God, but rather one who claims to know the answers to all of the questions of the universe.

According to the Zohar (Bereshit 1b), however, faith in God will always entail unanswerable questions, a fact inherent in one of His names. In Hebrew, “Elohim” is an anagram of the words “mi” (“who”) and “eleh” (“these”). “Mi” is an expression of the ineffable aspects of the divine, about which one can ask questions, though they are not necessarily answerable. “Eleh,” in contrast, refers to the facets of God that can be expressed. “Elohim” is thus an amalgam combing the knowable and definable with the indescribable.

Based on this idea, the Zohar suggests a novel interpretation for the sin of the Golden Calf, which appears in our parasha. After the Giving of the Torah, Moses tarries atop Mount Sinai, and the people of Israel, plagued by uncertainty, decide to make a statue:

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, “Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” …and [he] made it a molten calf; and they said, “These (eleh) are your gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 32:1, 4)

The people welcome their new deity with the words “These (eleh) are your gods, O Israel.” The sin of the Golden Calf is in the thought that God is a mere “this,” an “eleh” – defined and denuded of mystery, of the ineffable, of “mi.” The Zohar says, “Based on this mystery, those who sinned with the Golden Calf said, ‘These (eleh) are your gods, O Israel!’” The Zohar adds that “through this mystery, the universe exists,” and tells of the excitement that grips R. Shimon bar Yoĥai’s students after he transmits this idea: “R. Elazar and all the companions came and bowed down in front of him. Weeping, they said, ‘If we have come into the world only to hear this, it is enough’” (Zohar, Bereshit 2a).

It appears that the Zohar touches in a profound way upon a basic element of the story: people’s desire to create an accessible, tangible god, one that can be seen. The Israelites struggle to accept God’s invisibility, His transcendence of material reality, and in a moment of uncertainty, when it is unclear what has happened to Moses, they lose control, give in to their desires, and create an idol.

Countering the sinners, who proclaim, “These (eleh) are your gods, O Israel,” is Moses, who cries out, “Whoso (mi) is on the Lord’s side, let him come unto me” (32:26) – again, the “eleh” versus the “mi.” But the two must ultimately be recombined; the “eleh” joined to the “mi,” restoring God’s mystery, the unanswered question, the ineffable.[1] Part of the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf is through the mitzva of the red heifer, which is considered a ĥok, or a law for which there is no apparent rational explanation (Rashi on Numbers 19:2).[2] The deeper rectification of the sin of the Golden Calf lies in the ability to accept the incomprehensible too.

The Ineffable God

A god that can be defined is no god at all, for definition is constriction, while divinity is infinite, encompassing everything. As Rav Kook writes:

Any definition of the divine leads to heresy. Definition is spiritual idolatry. Even to define [the divine as] mind and will, and as divinity itself and as the name of God, is a definition. And were it not for the ultimate knowledge that all of these definitions are but scintillating sparks of that which is beyond definition, they too would lead to heresy. (Orot 124–125)

This insight is shared by many religions that contemplate divinity. The Tao Te Ching opens with the following assertion: “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.” The ineffable underpinning reality is what lends it vitality and being. As the fox famously tells the little prince, “And now here is my secret…what is essential is invisible to the eye.”[3]

The mystery shrouding our questions about God imbues life with value and meaning. Indeed, the same mystery exists in the human context as well. Many people have described to me their sense that the people around them do not truly know them. There is an external world in which they can encounter the other, but their inner worlds remain hidden, and they are unable to share them with anyone else. (The Baal Shem Tov once described the hidden as that which is not, and perhaps never will be, communicable to the other.) Yet, despite their frustration, and the feelings of alienation and loneliness that the realization engenders, these people would not relinquish their privacy and inner worlds. It seems that the key to dealing with these feelings lies in the realization that there will always be an ineffable dimension to every encounter with another human being. It is a realization that has the power to deepen and enrich the relationship, even if we cannot define it.

Questions Fuel Growth

When we receive an answer, we stop searching, but if our question goes unanswered, the world remains wide open. Questions stimulate growth. Isidor Rabi, the Nobel physics laureate, attributed his success to the education he received from his mother. Every day, upon his return from school, she would ask him not what he learned but rather what questions he had asked.

My children like to tell a story about a child who asks his father, “Why is the sky blue?” The father replies, “I am sorry but I do not know.” On the following day, the boy asks, “Father, why is the grass green?” Again the father apologizes and professes his ignorance. A few days later, the child asks, “Father, do you want me to stop asking you questions?” The father replies, “But if you do not ask, how will you know?” I used to think it was a joke, but eventually I realized that there is a profound lesson to the story: because the father repeatedly holds back from answering, his son continues to search, and perhaps, thanks to his unwavering curiosity, will one day arrive at previously unknown discoveries. According to Professor Yehuda Liebes, “mi” is “the aspect that is always in question. It is the infinite inquiry and appeal, and it is the source of every monumental creation, including the Zohar.”[4]

When it comes to the big questions of life and death and God, those people who feel they need answers are invariably frustrated, while those who do not attempt to grapple with them are doomed to lead meaningless lives. The golden mean is understanding that even when our questions remain unanswered, there is value to continuing to ask them. As the Zohar (Bereshit 1b) says, “‘Who’ (mi) can be questioned. Once a human being questions and searches, contemplating and knowing rung after rung to the very last rung…. All is concealed, as before.” To my mind, the Zohar’s intention is that although the question itself has no answer, one is elevated merely through contemplating it. In Zen traditions, one of the paths to spiritual development is kōan, a question that forces one to contend with oneself and venture beyond one’s habitual frames of reference.


According to Rabbi Nahman, the highest level of faith is a choice to continue to believe even without answers (see, for example, Likutei Moharan 64). When everything is overt, there is no need for trust. It is only when there is a hidden dimension that faith can exist. Still, it is important to emphasize: the fact that we have questions does not necessitate doubt as well; despite our bewilderment and perplexity, we can choose to believe.

In the Book of Job, we read of a fundamental argument between Job and his friends: Job raises the question of theodicy in all its starkness, while his friends rebuke him for questioning the ways of God. They deny him the right to ask questions, claiming that the calamities that have befallen him were all deserved, a consequence of his sins. Ultimately, God takes Job’s side in the argument and scolds his friends:

And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends; for ye have not spoken of Me the thing that is right, as My servant Job hath.” (Job 42:7)

God refers to Job as his “servant,” for service of God and faith in Him do not mean ignoring and suppressing questions, but rather grappling with them honestly, while internalizing the idea that God transcends human understanding and that not all questions can necessarily be resolved. The search is eternal. As the psalm (105:4) enjoins, “Seek ye the Lord and His strength; seek His face continually.” One of the main definitions of life is a capacity for movement. The search for the face of God – expressed in the form of questions about Him that are not mere means to an end – is the essence of life, which is a journey into the beyond. Though we never arrive, we are constantly engaged in study and growth that imbue our lives with meaning and purpose.

When we examine reality, we sense within ourselves the two faces of God. On one hand, a voice emerges, asking difficult questions; on the other, there is a powerful internal conviction that nothing is left to chance – that there is a higher power guiding life. Must we silence one of those voices, or can we learn to live with both, to accept a life of complexity?

[1] My thanks to Mordechai Zeller for pointing this out.

[2] My thanks to Zvi Yehuda Cohen for pointing this out.

[3] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince,

[4] Yehuda Liebes, “Zohar and Eros,” Alpayim 9 [Hebrew] (1994): 67.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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