We may be embarrassed to say it publicly, but most people throughout their lives have questioned their faith. I believe that doubts are not a challenge to faith, but rather a prerequisite. Who hasn’t struggled with the thirst to find the truth? If only God would appear to me, I would certainly have faith…but he never does. If only a miracle would occur in my presence, I would believe in God…but it never does. And if God truly wants us to believe in Him, He could do a far better job marketing Himself.
This week we celebrate Shavuot, the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, Shavuot is more mysterious than merely reflecting upon our receiving the Ten Commandments. It conjures up the philosophical question of “where is God?” The text reveals that the Israelites are in a rather peculiar predicament. And the LORD said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you.” They are about to receive the Torah but instead of seeing God, He will be appearing to them in thick clouds reminiscent of foggy conditions. The Torah continues with more mystical illusions: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” The voice of God heard only indirectly via thunder and lightning masquerading as speech.
The strange phenomena seem to infer that regardless of our willingness to subjugate to God’s will, He is determined to keep man at a distance. Man is obligated in the first of the Ten Commandments to know God, but that, too, is misleading. Yes, we are to know Him, but never to fully get to know Him. We are to acknowledge that God orchestrated our redemption from slavery, but nonetheless we are to remain restricted from gaining an insight to His essence and being.
This idea can be found in Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith and the Yigdal prayer recited at the beginning of our daily service, as well as the culmination of the Friday night service. We declare our belief in God’s invisibility, or God’s intentional absence. It states, “He has neither bodily form nor substance: we can’t compare anything to Him or His holiness.” We recite this not as a complaint, but rather to highlight this magnificent aspect of His holiness.
Conversely, there is another aspect of God’s absence that alludes to a distancing between Him and His People. This is referred to as ‘Hester Panim,’ or the removal of God from our midst. God’s name is not mentioned in the entire book of Esther. Its absence indicates that God chose to remove Himself from His people. It’s sort of like tit for tat; when the Israelites abandon God and his commandments, he in return decides to step into the shadow and remove Himself from us.
The paradox is amazing. Regardless of our actions, the net result appears similar. If we are good and conform to His will, we will be unable to see Him. If we are bad and abandon His will, we also won’t be able to see Him.
So how do we decipher God and this dichotomy? The truth is that having an intimate relationship with God is not necessarily beneficial. The story of the biblical Adam is one of intrigue and leaves the reader to ponder Adam’s actions. Adam knows that God exists as the Torah narrates their personal relationship. He asks God for a mate and God responds in the affirmative. Yet he immediately succumbs to temptation and eats of the Tree of Knowledge. Cain and Abel also had personal relationships with God, but that did little to enhance their interpersonal skills as human beings. Thus, perhaps the lesson the Torah is imparting to mankind is that mortal man may benefit more by keeping a healthy distance. Yes, we are to embrace the concept in the abstract, but getting too close can be injurious to one’s spiritual health. It may be analogous to the sun; man is dependent on the sun for heat, seasons, and energy, but we are unable to look directly at its radiance or its awesome power will destroy us.
God is always invisible to the naked eye. Even at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites were on the highest of spiritual highs, they were unable to transcend their physical limitations. God remained just beyond the grasp of humanity. Yet at times the opposite is true, His closeness is palpable but unattainable. He is so close, yet so far. It’s reminiscent of clouds acting as a barrier to seeing the sun. We know it’s just above but we can’t actually see it. We long for its warmth and feel abandoned by the cold damp void it leaves in its wake. Yet, regardless of the perception of its absence, its power still controls the destiny of all mankind. Only the fool would seriously contemplate that yesterday the sun existed in all its glory and today the clouds replaced it.
Shavuot responds to that dichotomy. It challenges mankind to reenact Mount Sinai, to envisage that we too, are standing by the mountain awaiting the eternal gift of the Torah. We are capable of attaining the highest of highs but nonetheless we are reminded that the struggle is unachievable. For some, Shavuot embraces a dire and gloomy outlook. They hear the sounds of the shofar but are unsure of their origin. They are unable to locate the source and it appears to them that our world lacks a controlling deity. They may honestly seek the truth but can’t see past the clouds and the fog. They truly want to believe the sun exists but proving it to themselves requires a faith that they are unwilling or unable to accept.
Chanukah and Purim are so much easier to enjoy. There is eating, drinking, gift giving, and the lighting of flickering candles. Celebration of these holidays supersedes a deep analysis of their significance. The Passover Seder, too, is a glorious and decadent affair. The table is set beautifully and delicious food is paramount. Shavuot, sadly, is unable to keep pace. The best it can muster is a highly caloric piece of cheesecake. But that bite of decadence can force the unchallenged mind to question: why are we eating dairy on Shavuot? Then we take the next forkful and enter the slippery slope of searching for the invisible God. And perhaps we finally realize that doubts are not a challenge to faith, but rather a prerequisite. And yes, God could have marketed Himself better, but that would have defeated the purpose.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel