Parashat Mishpatim: Talking About God
A few weeks ago on a snow day when school was canceled, I was home with my kids “What to do? What to do?” I asked myself before popping in the DVD of “The Ten Commandments.” Yes, those Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charleston Heston. I hoped that at a running time of 220 minutes it would keep them busy for the entire morning. To my great surprise they were riveted.
The miracle of technology and flat screen TVs brought God and all the biblical wonders right into our living room. Lots of questions came with them.
“Why did He do the ten plagues?” asked my 7 year old daughter (she was disappointed that only three were in the movie).
“You know that God is not a “he” or “she”?” I chided gently.
“Okay, why did It do the ten plagues?” she innocently shot back.
“To show the Egyptians God’s power and to free the Children of Israel from slavery.” I told her.
She paused with a quizzical look. “And the parents too, right?”
Later all three children were full of other questions. “Did all this stuff really happen?” They wanted to know. True to my pluralistic strivings I answered, “Well, some people think it did. Others think it didn’t. And for others, it doesn’t matter, but we can still learn from it.” My seven year-old ponders her choices and says, “I’m going with ‘it doesn’t matter and I can learn from it.’” Good for her. No matter what one believes, it’s nice to know your children can differentiate conceptually between truth and facts.
As a Jewish educator who is used to working with adults, learning how to talk to my own children about God is like building a bridge as I am walking across it. I’m in foreign territory here and the stakes are high. They want black and white answers but I am only comfortable existing in the gray. Luckily, I believe in a gray God.
In our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, God implores Moshe, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the elders of Israel to come up to Adonai “and bow low from afar.” (Gen 24:1). Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in his book Kedushat Levi infers from this that there are two distinct aspects of God – the God that is far away (transcendent) and the God that is nearby (immanent).
He claims (and I agree) that the transcendent aspect of God is beyond our comprehension since God predates all time and our mortal thoughts can only exist in the present. Also, there is no avoiding the immanent aspect of God, says the Kedushat Levi, since it is filling the whole world and surrounding everything. Kedushat Levi says our challenge is to believe in both, the immanent and the transcendent. I guess this means as Jews we have to learn that 1 + 1 = 2 and that 1 + 1 = 1. This is the math I want my children to learn.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak attaches human emotions to each of God’s qualities. For God’s transcendence, he attaches awe since awe is what one feels when confronted with something that blows your mind and you can’t understand. For God’s immanence, he attaches love for love is what one feels when a caring force flows within you and surrounds you and fills the empty spaces of your world and your heart.
This is why, Aaron, his sons, and the elders are commanded to “bow low from afar”. God’s faraway-ness is ineffable, which results in the emotion of awe causing one to bow low. But Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, referring to a teaching by Rabbi Isaac Luria, says that there is another purpose to the commandment to bow down. That is, by bowing down to God’s unknowable transcendence we can tap into God’s immanence and draw the faraway God closer to us.
Do I fully understand what I just conveyed above? Nope. But that is the point. When I ask myself about God and when my children ask me about God, it invites conversations that go far beyond our intellectual abilities. We enter into the world of emotions and poetry. To the best of my ability I want to teach my children that the God that they can believe in is gray – a mixture of black and white, near and far, immanent and transcendent, of unknowable truths of the universe and observable facts of the world, and most importantly, a source of awe and love.