Parashat Va’era: how do we recognise the appearance of God?

Ever since God made human beings “b’tzelem Elohim” in the image of God, way back when the world was young, the appearance of God has been problematic to say the least.  That old man in the sky, with long white beard and kindly expression began I know not when, but somehow generations of small children expect God to look like that, and I remember the pictures of a long haired, blue eyed Jesus that decorated Junior schools up and down the country in my own youth.  The Blake ‘Creation of Adam’ shows a white and western male God created in the image of the white and western male.

            God made human beings ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, in the divine image. We often seem to attempt to return the compliment by making God b’tzelem Adam – in the human image.

            Think of God, and what image do you conjure up?  Whatever it is, it is going to be a construct of human imagination, so Jewish tradition is adamant that there should be no such thing as a representation of God.  Neither incarnate nor in art; we persist in refusing to even attempt to define God.  Our God is outside of space and time, of the physical rules governing the universe.  Our God exists – that is enough.

            So what appeared to Moses at Horeb when he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed?  What appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob?  How do we understand or even recognise the appearance of God?

            In biblical stories there are Melachim (angels or messengers) and there are Anashim – people.  There are dreams and visions and voices in the night.  Moses sees the theophany in a flame of fire rising out of the midst of a bush. 

            How do we recognise the appearance of God, especially when we are so sure of the existence of God as being outside of all the rules of time and space which would necessarily create appearance?  How do we know when we have encountered the divine, when we meet in dialogue or catch a sudden glimpse of the absolute?  And conversely, how do we prevent ourselves from being like Pharaoh, unable to see the presence of God even when everything in our world is demonstrating it?

            And how do we ensure that the God we encounter is not one made in our own image, as we try to fulfil our need and end our searching?

            There is an upsurge in the searching for spirituality, a need to be more sure of things as the world becomes a more dizzyingly active place, a need to find a safe place in the maelstrom of the early years of a new millennium.  But as we search for the deeper and essential truths to anchor us, we often look too hard to find them, become too narrow in our scope.  The appearance of God passes us by unnoticed. 

When Moses saw God at the bush, it would have taken him quite some time to have watched enough to realise that a miraculous event was taking place – how long does it take to watch a fire before you realise that it is not consuming its fuel?  Yet often when we search for God, we don’t give ourselves the time to really see what is around us.  Eight times the root for the word to see (ra’ah) is used in the six verses where God first appears to Moses, culminating in God’s declaration “Ra’oh ra’eetee” – I have surely seen. (v7)  By the time God appears to Moses as this sidra opens, the relationship is established, God speaks to Moses and tells him of his appearance to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob quite nonchalantly.  Yet there is something new – in this new relationship (as in all individual relationships with God) there is a particular truth to be revealed – in this case the tetragrammaton, the four lettered name of God. Having surely seen God, Moses has acquired a special knowledge about God – the essential name is made known to him.

            And here lies a clue as to how we recognise the divinity when we meet.  God is beyond our imagination, beyond our ability to construct or to constrain.  In meeting God then we catch just a glimpse of that beyondness, the particular truth that we as individuals could understand will be revealed.  More than a glimpse, and we see the gross detail that reveals the experience to be a product of our own selves.  Less than a glimpse and we can never be sure that the experience was real.  The knowledge of something that we know we could never have thought of on our own is best of all, for the infinite God can be recognised specially by each of us.  As Rabbi Levi wrote (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana) “God appears like a mirror in which many faces can be reflected. A thousand people look at it, it looks at each of them” 

We meet God when we are open to such a meeting, and when we stop trying to fill the space where we think God should be.  And when that space fills with something new and recognizably beyond our own imagining, that is when we glimpse the divine.   

            It is surely time to learn to recognise God in the world around us by learning to look and really see what is around us, rather than by searching for our predetermined expectation of the divine.  And it is time to stop pretending that we have any answers, that we can create god as we can create any artefact or idea.  Much better to open ourselves to the experience, to allow our encounter to emerge as it will.  To do that we have to accept that there are no answers that will satisfy entirely, no reasons that will explain thoroughly, no plan that will make perfect sense.  Each of us, living breathing and sensing human beings, will encounter differently, will learn something new and particular about the creator, will meet God as we are able to do so.

parashat Shemot

The book of Exodus begins with race hatred, forced slavery, infanticide, adult murder, and a fugitive hero. The runaway Moses finds comfort in the desert with the family of Jethro a priest of Midian, whose daughters were themselves being ill-treated by some itinerant shepherds while trying to draw water for their flock. In a moment of high romance Moses single-handedly stood up the shepherds and helped the girls draw the water they needed, and so was taken into the family and looked after, marrying Zipporah and fathering two sons. 

It could have happened that the story of Moses effectively ended here – keeping the flock of Jethro, a much appreciated son in law for a man with seven daughters – but for the event that followed. While out one day with the sheep, nowhere very special, Moses noticed a bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed by it. Bush fires can’t have been all that uncommon in the dry hot desert. Yet Moses watched this one for enough time to recognise that it was unusual. And once he recognised that something else was happening, so it was that God spoke to him, telling him that the cry of the Israelites had reached the heavens, that God was going to re-enter history and rescue the people of Israel from the Egyptians and take them back to their own land, and that Moses was going to be his agent, speaking both to Pharaoh and to the Jews.

All very dramatic. All rather terrifying – particularly to the lone boy who had fled Egypt from a murder charge, who had grown up in an Egyptian Royal Household, who was living at the whim of others. How was he to believe it was God talking to him? How was he to convince others that God had spoken? How could he face a return to Egypt to try to persuade a Pharaoh he already knew would not believe him, to let the Hebrew slaves go?

Small wonder that Moses doubts. And demurs. And really doesn’t want to get involved. Even with the addition of two more signs – a stick that turns into a serpent, a hand that becomes leprously white then healthily pink – and the promise of more, Moses is reluctant. Not me – I’m not very articulate…

It is, when you think about it, a very odd meeting. Where has God been all these years? Was God around but simply not noticed?

Why choose a bush in the wilderness in which to make a statement? Why choose someone so naïve and young and frightened and just a little bit anxious, someone from the very fringes of the community, someone who had been given away because being within the community seemed just too dangerous? Just what was it in Moses that God recognised as being the necessary characteristic for leadership? Just what was it at the bush that Moses stopped to ponder – what really did he see and understand?

Many years ago my teacher Jonathan Magonet asked – how long would you have to look at a bonfire before you realised it wasn’t actually burning up? It was an illuminating question. Moses must have demonstrated an ability to watch, to focus, to be patient, to contemplate the unimaginable, for him to have noticed that the burning bush wasn’t actually being consumed.

More even than the willingness to take the time, more even than the ability to focus and to observe, I think it is the ability to imagine the indescribable that marks out Moses for leadership. He was able to think differently, to see in the normal and everyday occurrences something special and manifestly other, beyond what simply is. It is, it think no surprise that when asked for the name of the divinity that Moses must pass on to the people the name is “ehyeh asher ehyeh” “I will be whatever I will be.”

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see Moses not as the great leader of rabbinic tradition – we see a young and fragile man, emotional, dislocated, upstanding, and fearful. We see someone who could be great – he has demonstrated his sense of moral outrage, his willingness to act out his values, his affinity with his people, his support of the daughters of Jethro against injustice. And we see someone who could be a bit of a nebbish – full of doubts, a little bit unclear as to his identity, afraid, sensing himself as a continual outsider, with no obvious vision for himself or his future. He is someone we can recognise in our modern context.

True leadership requires not only vision, motivation, focus, and passion, it also requires someone with emotional intelligence, the ability to understand more than the current and obvious scenario, the willingness to do something not immediately clear or comprehensible to those around you. It means being rooted in the history or the culture of your place but not being held back by it, it means being open to whatever presents itself.