Unmasking God

God, where art thou?

I used to seek you in the poetry of all things mundane.

There was that night, when the puddles were silver and gold on the pavement. The air quivered, alive with the lightness of rain. And I breathed with it, soaring and serene and overwhelmed all at once. I thought — transcendence. I thought — You must exist. I thought — life is wonderful.

I was full and I was flying and my joy overflowed into what seemed like an eternal span of time.

But on the very next moment, the pavement was merely dirty asphalt again. Yesterday’s rain pooled under my boots, prosaic and murky. You were gone.

Then there was a street corner, and the light hit it just right. A cathedral, I thought, my heart swelling.

But random pipes scarred the walls, and my momentary temple crumbled back to insignificance.

On the same day, I saw a beautiful old lady, and ancient wisdom shone from her eyes. I stopped in my tracks, feeling Your presence. But she mumbled, and yelled at me for blocking her path. Her breath washed over me, and I lost you.

It hurt. Why do You, eternal as You are, choose to manifest Yourself in fragments and lost moments? Why do you dangle Your presence just within our reach, just to snatch it away?

* * *

There was a cup on the table, and my baby reached for it. “Cup, cup,” she cried.

“There you go sweetheart,” I soothed, handing her the cup. But after looking at the object on her lap for a second, the reverence disappeared from my daughter’s face. She burst into tears.

“No,” she cried, the cup clutched in her hands. “Cup! Cup!”

* * *

Watching my daughter’s disappointment, God, I realized that I set myself to fail. I went about my quest in the wrong way.

I sought You in moments of transcendent beauty. But transcendence is forever rooted in the physical, and the physical is, by definition, bound by time. Transcendent moments simply can’t be expected to last.

My daughter saw on the table something beyond the physical. For a moment, the cup was elevated by her own yearning into something more than a finite clump of clay. But, like that night in the rain, and the street corner, and the old lady, the cup was still, ultimately, nothing more than itself.

My daughter cried “cup” like I cried “God.” we were both mourning something that we saw for a moment, before reality reasserted itself. The transcendent moment evaporated, and what remained was prosaic and plain. It couldn’t contain our soaring spirits. It could do naught but disappoint.

* * *

God, where art thou?

I still seek You. I still want to unmask your presence in the world of time and matter. But now I no longer look for You in wondrous moments. I seek You within me instead, by making myself a vessel for Your will.

I acknowledged my blessings, and try to use them well. I see my abilities as a holy bequest to be shared and practiced. I treat Your gifts to me — my friends and family, my ability to be with them, my ability to contribute to their happiness — with the respect they deserve.

And the feeling of Your presence, the same feeling that evaporated whenever I sought You in beautiful sunsets, finally stays with me. My own achievements, tasks and relationships became an ongoing revelation of sorts.

* * *

One day, I will take my daughter to a pottery class. I will let her mix powders and water, and mold a cup of her own. I will let her pour herself into the process, and forge something more than just a cup.

“Cup,” she will say.

* * *

The sages taught that the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai, but accepted it only on Purim.

I used to read these commentaries and say “this doesn’t make sense.”

How can we claim that the people who saw the parting of the sea, the people who said “we shall hear and we shall do,” didn’t actually accept Your gift to them?

How can we say that the people who crossed the Jordan into the promised land didn’t accept the words that led them there?

But now I understand.

The generations that received the Torah and witnessed Your miracles couldn’t truly accept the Torah. Acceptance is an ongoing process, an uphill battle to acknowledge and preserve. They had to work to unmask You, they had to pour themselves into their quest, to truly accept your presence in their lives. But since your presence was thrust upon them through miracles and revelations, they didn’t have the need, nor the opportunity, to seek You. They experienced You, but experience is always transient. It’s always an island in time, doomed to disappear, doomed to leave us with disappointing cups and dirty puddles.

You had to don a mask for us to truly seek You. You had to disappear for us to work at it, and push ourselves, and find you in our own efforts.

The Torah had to truly no longer be in the heavens, for us to really, actively, embrace it here on earth.

Megillat Esther and the story of Purim represent more than a historical moment. They represent religious life as we know it: cursed by Your absence, by the masks that hide you from our gaze.

But this curse is a blessing in disguise. Because only when you don’t reveal yourself to us, can we actively unmask you. And only when we actively unmask you, can we gain your presence for more than a moment in time.

Only in the world of Esther, can we accept the Torah, and You.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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