God’s essence

by | Mar 25, 2016 | Torah Thought

“No human can see me and live,” said God to Moses. Why might that be? When the Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai and the presence of God descended upon the mountain, the Israelites were repeatedly warned to stay away lest somehow the incredible force of God’s presence should end their lives. Indeed, at many other points in the Hebrew Bible, including an early vision of the prophet Isaiah and a lampoon of Samson’s father, this belief— that a human being cannot see God and continue to live—is expressed. Why?

I believe that an answer is presented in the fifth century midrash Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, as interpreted by Rabbi Harold Schulweiss. The midrash states that “at Mount Sinai, the Holy One appeared to the Israelites as a mirror, a thousand people might look into it, but it will reflect the face of each back.” Perhaps we should take the idea that we are each created in the image of God a little more seriously?

Perhaps, if we truly looked into the face of God, we would see our own. Perhaps that simple certainty of our own divine nature would sever our ties with our mortal existence, because we could no longer pretend to be separate from God?

“The madman claims he is God. The enlightened man claims that he is God— but so is everyone else.” If we truly absorbed this sentiment and put it into action in our daily lives—seeing every person we meet as a fragment of the divine—imagine what a compassionate world we could build!

This week we read in the Torah of how Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, in their religious zeal to serve God, offered incense without permission, and died. Perhaps what they encountered was not so much God’s anger as God’s essence. Perhaps, in getting too close to the divine, they realized their true divine nature with a certainty that blazed like fire. In that moment, they could no longer live an earthly existence, and so were forced to depart it. Hence the explanation: “Those drawing near to Me shall unmask My sanctity, for by the face of each person I am honored.”

—Rabbi Marc Kraus, Temple Emanuel