Getting G-d Right1
- You shall greatly beware for your souls, for you did not see any likeness on the day Hashem spoke to you at Chorev from within the fire. Lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image, a likeness of any shape…
How easy is it to believe in G-d? As easy as it is to believe in one’s self!
Do not expect to find support here for the modern mantra of “if you look deeply within yourself you will find the truth.” That is not what our pesukim tell us. Moreover, it is not a Torah position. We do not mean that one’s inner voice will lead him or her to determine what is right and what is wrong. We mean holding on to the belief that our inner voice is real and significant, more real to us than anything else.
Our pesukim exhort us not to make fatal errors about Divinity, based on our experience at Sinai. We are first tempted to think of this as yet another of the many warnings in Chumash Devarim against falling into the ways of idolatry. This does not really work in the text, however.
The object of “be greatly beware” is usually “you,” either in the singular or plural. In those cases, the implication is that you must guard yourself against any false influence that you may encounter. In so doing, you guard and protect your role in staying faithful to the Torah. Our pasuk is the only one in the Torah (and one of only two in Tanach) in which the object changes to “your souls.” This subtle difference points to a danger not to our lives or activities, but to the stuff that nourishes our souls: clarity about our relationship with G-d.
The Torah warns us not to make any material representation of G-d. When we do, we endanger and distort our conception of G-d as an invisible, supernatural, intangible Being. The danger is not that we will abandon the true G-d for another power, real or imagined. The danger is that we will alter the way we look at G-d; at stake are our souls, not our selves. Getting G-d wrong affects the quality of our neshamos. Moreover, our belief in G-d is related to and intertwined with our understanding of our souls as the true locus of our individuality and existence.
An ardent materialist has no room for the soul. He has no room in his world view for anything that is not tangible, measurable and manipulable. He therefore has no tolerance and no patience for a G-d concept. Neither, for that matter, can he relate to some invisible, supernatural, intangible part of himself that others call the soul. His own consciousness and identity are phenomena that are poorly understood, but he is sure that they are simply by-products of brain function.
Most of the rest of us take a position completely antipodal to this. Not only do we reject the materialist point of view, but we have confidence that the most personal, real and essential part of ourselves is the soul. Despite our trust of things we can see and manipulate, nothing is more real to us than our own inner experience. We call that experience and consciousness the soul. Once we believe in it, we do not have so hard a time in accepting a Being outside of our selves Who shares many of the same properties.
The gemara fleshes out this thought by finding parallels between G-d and our souls. Just as G-d fills the world, our souls fill our bodies. G-d sees but is not seen; the same holds true for the soul. G-d nourishes the world; the soul nourishes the body; both G-d and the soul are pure.
Pointing out these parallels is important, because through them, belief in Hashem becomes accessible and certain. When our pesukim tell us to “beware for our souls,” they mean that we should hold firm to our belief that in some areas, our senses cannot be the final determinants of truth for us. We know, trust and value our consciousness, despite it being a poorly understood intangible. It is the most real part of our existence, identical with our individuality. We call it the soul, and believe in it more than the sensory data with which we negotiate most other issues in life. Believing that our senses are not the end-all of knowledge and reality, we can trust our belief in a personal G-d as well.
What does this have to do with Sinai? Many others also profess belief in G-d. Moreover, they look to Sinai as the ultimate reason for that belief. They trust the Biblical record of a moment in history in which G-d reached out to Man, and Man directly apprehended Divinity. They find it impossible, however, to escape the tendency to place all knowledge on the doorstep of sensory experience. We Jews understand that it was not our eyes and ears that were important, but our souls that participated in the great event at Sinai. Others, however, cannot escape their dependence upon eyes and ears of flesh. In doing so, they shift their understanding of G-d to something that can and must be known by the senses. Thereby, they horribly change G-d into something smaller, more limited, more earthly and human.
It is not then any competing god that the Torah warns us against here, but a corruption of G-d’s Essence. If we turn ma’amad Har Sinai into something sensory and physical, we will do the same to G-d. We escape this tendency by reminding ourselves about a non-physical part of ourselves that we value above all physical existence.
We have only to look inside ourselves to find a model for belief.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Devarim, 4:15-16
2. See Rav Hirsch’s development of the exchange between the nachash and Chavah. Briefly, he argues that unlike the “truths” that Hashem made inherent in the behavior of every animal, humans are an exception. For them, looking into themselves and their natures will not uncover the truth. Humans can only discover what they need to know by listening to an external voice – the voice of Hashem’s commandments.
3. See above, 4:9
4. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher wrote, “There is nothing so inconceivable as that matter should be conscious of itself.”
5. Berachos 10A