Kabbalah & Mysticism

Where is G-d?

The Torah is always written with multiple layers of meaning. The first verse is no different. It reads “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” However, the grammar is confusing. The way it is written it is possible to err and to mistranslate: “The beginning created God, etc.” This error could have been avoided had the Torah changed the word order to “God created in the beginning”. Then, even a mistranslation would still have read, “God created the beginning”, which is still correct, for in order to create “in the beginning” he had to create the beginning as well.

So why does the Torah open with a sentence that can lead us astray?

The answer is that we can only imagine God in the context of a created world. We cannot imagine God in his essence. We can only see Him through the prism of our own context, the world we live in. Put this way, one layer of meaning that we can peel off the verse is, “In the beginning there was a creation, and then we could understand the God behind that creation”.
But even after we stand in that creation, God is still a mystery of sorts.

When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, He told Moses to go and tell the Jewish people that God was going to save them. Moses then said to God, Behold, I will come to the Children of Israel, and I will say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.” And they will say to me, “What is His name?” What shat I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I will be as I will be.” (Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,”) And He said, “So you should say to the Children of Israel: ‘I will be – this is who sent me to you.’”(Exodus 3: 13 -14)

By saying this enigmatic representation of His name, God was saying that I exist in the past, present and future[1] – above time in fact – and hence I will always be there for you.  I will be the one that you will call by other names (for there are many names for God in Hebrew), each one reflecting a different manifestation of My essence, but all reflecting the same essence.   

Moses never uses this name again.  For part of God’s message is that man can only know so much. There are layers of knowledge that are unknowable and unfathomable.  The more we will delve, the more we will understand that the mystery can never be solved.

No human being ever got closer to God than Moses. No-one knew God more intimately and profoundly than he. As the Torah testifies at its end: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Lord singled out face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) Yet even Moses was not able to see God beyond a certain point. As the Sages in the Talmud  (Yevamot 49b) explained:  All the prophets saw through an opaque glass but Moses saw through a lucid glass. 

Rashi, the greatest of the Talmud commentators, remarks: “All the prophets looked through a dark glass, and thought they saw; Moses looked through a clear glass, and knew he had not seen God’s face”.  

The Kabbalists have a question. If God is everything, how can there be place for man? And, if God does make place for man, how does man survive without God?  The Kabbalists answer that God indeed contracts Himself to create a space (depicted as a circle) within Himself. But, he does not withdraw completely. Instead God hides Himself, or hides His Face as it is put, to create the possibility of man in a space still sustained and nurtured by God.

Diagrammatically, this looks like a circle whose place is in God, with the full light of God surrounding the circle.  A thin line runs like a radius into the centre of a circle – this is the light of God from the outside flowing into the darkness of our world to light it up. It does not enter from the entire circumference – that would bathe the circle in such a light it would be reabsorbed into God. Instead, it runs as a thin line, providing just enough Godly light to sustain the world, but not too much as to destroy it. 

The way we express these two aspects of God – the Ineffable Being outside of the circle on the one hand and the God that lights up the circle itself – is by referring to God in His transcendence and God in His immanence, respectively.  God in His transcendence is the great inscrutable mystery. God in His immanence is that manifestation of God that turns to Man, and with whom we can have a relationship in turn.
The Kabbalah does not concern itself with attempting to fathom God Himself, the transcendent God. This is called by the Kabbalists his atzmut or God’s essence, and it is simply impossibility for us to conceive. About God’s atzmut we can only say what He isn’t. And even His total unity is referred to Eyn Od ­­– There is nothing other than Him – a negative formulation.   
But God in his immanence is a different story. Not only can we relate to Him, but we determine the degree of His presence on earth. We decide how much to let Him in because that is how He set up the world. The Sages tell us: “From the first day that God created the world He desired to live with those He created down here (literally in the lowest of worlds).”[2] God created the world to give to us. But He put in our hands the choice of whether He would appear in the world. “There is no king without a nation.” If we do not recognize God as our king and thereby become the vehicles that proclaim Him in the world, we defeat Him, so to speak. We deny Him His intentions in creating the world. We cannot touch his essence.[3]   But, we empower Him in this world by giving Him a presence here, by fulfilling His desire to dwell amongst us.[4]

In the Shema prayer, we declare in the first verse: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”.[5] The very next line says, “Blessed be the name of glorious kingdom for all eternity”.[6] Having declared God one and the only One, we immediately follow by saying that, by so doing, we honor His kingdom.  He can rule over us as a master. But only we  can declare His glory in this world.

 In sum, there is God in His immanence and God in His transcendence. There is the God who comes down to this earth, guides the affairs of man, ensures that every blade of grass grows – and then there is the part of God that remains way up in the heavens of which it is said, “That which is mysterious, do not search after.” [7]
Notes & Sources

[1] Bechor Shor
[2] Midrash Rabah (the Great Midrash): Bamidbar Rabah, 11: 6
[3] See Job Chap 35, Verse 6
[4] Midrash Rabah: Eichah Rabah 1: 35
[5] Devarim (Deutoronomy), Chap 6, Verse 4
[6] Artscroll translation.  According to the Oral Law, these words were added by the sons of Yaakov (Jacob), in response to his declaration of the Shema.
[7] Deuteronomy 29

Written by Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, Director of Neve College for Women

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