Shavuot begins this evening and continues through Tuesday 18 May for Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Twenty-four hours of weighty reflection is my portion. I rarely send out blogs on Sunday, but Shavuot is my excuse. Further, my rabbi, Yael Splansky, offered a Torah study on Shabat morning that reminded me of a schema of thinking about God that I was taught many years ago. I will not give credit because I am not sure if my memory is correct, and I cannot locate the original source.
It happens to be an appropriate time to conceive of God in the various ways that I will when COVID-19 is within sight of being defeated, this invisible to the human eye circular microbe with protein spikes protruding from its spherical surface. COVID-19 is so ominous and threatening. It is also the time when my brothers and sisters in Israel (literally, my grandchildren and great grandchildren) are hiding and sleeping in safe rooms as missiles rain down on that country, as murderous mobs haunt the streets of Israel’s mixed cities and target synagogues and restored buildings of antiquity, as Palestinian men, women and children hide from bloodthirsty Jewish unruly and disorderly crowds intent on vigilante revenge, and as Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza do not even have safe rooms or solid stairwells where they can find relative safety from the missiles being shot from Israeli warplanes to once and for all try to intimidate Hamas from sending rockets against innocent Israeli civilians.
Three days ago, Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan and prepared for Eid the following day, like Jews on Shavuot, often spending all night in preparation. Yesterday was Nakba Day, the day Palestinians remember with deep sorrow the catastrophe that befell them with the creation of Israel. In a week, Muslims will celebrate Eid ul Fitr, usually a celebration of gifts and sweetness, but this year, laced with bitterness for Palestinians. Normally a day of festivity, it is also a day that Muslims are commanded not to forget the suffering and deprivations of others.
I write this fully aware that I am biased and worried more about my own family, my own flesh and blood, than other Israelis, and I am more concerned about my fellow Jews in Israel than the Palestinian and foreign workers who also crouch and seek safety in Israel and suffer casualties as well. Most of all, my heart bleeds more for all these types of Israelis and others living in the Promised Land than the tremendous number of hapless Gazan men, women and children who are being killed at ten times the rate of those dying in Israel.
Why do I care with such differential emotion? Because God offered my people – they are my people – an ancient covenant on Mount Sinai, and my people have celebrated that event for millenia, for 3,333 years more precisely, to stand as one nation before God, even though I recognize we have always been riven with differences and schisms through all that time, but especially at such times as this of fear and foreboding.
And tonight, I will study with my fellow Reform Jews from across the country until the wee hours of the morning. I no longer teach on such occasions, but I do participate in study sessions. And I will be reminded by the story of Ruth that, perhaps the greatest heroine in Jewish history, Ruth, the most archetypal Jewish mother, was not born a Jew. But she said that your people shall be my people with such truth and commitment that she would give birth to a line of Jews that produced King David.
Shavuot is the holiday to commemorate when Jews were given Torah. What they were actually given, and if they were given even the tablets with the ten commandments, can be debated for another three millenia. But the depiction of the giving of that gift cannot be denied.
The children of Israel in flight from Egypt had reached the foot of a mountain in the Sinai desert. Moses ascended that mountain. God came down from heaven atop that mountain. And the two met. And God blessed the Israelites and instructed Moses as follows: (Exodus 19:3-6)
I am the God that uses fear that is greater than the fear you had of the Pharaoh of Egypt. He cowered in fear before Me. I am God that intimidates. I am God who meets out divine justice. The people cowered in fright before God who had appeared in a thick, black cloud of smoke and fire. But do not try to touch the mountain for you will surely die. As in COVID-19, keep your distance.
On the third day, there was a revelation. As dawn broke, as thunder blasted away and lightning flashed, as heavy dark clouds hung over the top of that mountain, as the people stood at the foot of the mountain in fear and trembling, God descended in a stream of lava and smoke from a mountain that had blown its top. And God confessed. “אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא–פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים, לְשֹׂנְאָי” (I am a jealous God visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” I am a punishing God. I am God to be feared. And those who do not fear, I curse and do not bless.) (Exodus 20:4)
Thus, there are two aspects to this God of fear and intimidation. God coerces humans to obey Him and curses them who do not. But people are free to curse God in turn. And, more importantly, to regard the blessing of the Torah given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai as a curse, as a burden no human should be asked or expected to carry. To expect Jews to be a nation of saints, a priestly nation, a light unto the world, is just too much.
But the God of coercion and the God of the curse is offset by a very different side of God, a God who provides a blanket of protection, a God who offers a comforting cover. But the other side of this God of mercy that infantilizes, that makes us complacent and passive, is the God of mercy who challenges us to act, to commit, to freely enter into a covenant with God to care and collaborate and heal the world.
Thus, God can be represented in terms of different directions. There is the God of wrath, of intimidation, the God of fear that rules by coercion, but in requiring your cooperation and commitment of the highest order, turns a blessing into a curse, a curse of expectation and double standards in terms of which Jews shall be judged. But there is also the God of mercy who provides a shelter, who covers us with a blanket of protection, who vaccinates us against the invisible sources of unseen death. God is the God of grace, who bears the Israelites on eagles’ wings and brings them into God’s embrace. But the God of mercy has another side, a caring and collaborative side, God that requires commitment and action by us, that regards humans as self-legislators, as moral individuals responsible for their own actions and what happens to them.
The Four Faces of God
The Four Faces of God
|Passive (1&3)||God of Fear||God of Mercy|
|Opposites (1 & 4)||God as coercive and commanding||God of Care and Commitment|
|Opposites (2 & 3)||God as a Curse||God as a Protective Cover|
We cannot see the face of God because God is multi-faceted. Depending on the direction we look, we experience a different God and respond in fear to God as coercive or God as a curse. Or we respond with love and appreciation to God as a cover, a protective blanket, or, alternatively, as a caring God of commitment and the covenant. If we keep our end of the bargain, God will keep His.
Thus, on Shavuot, the shofar sounds; we once again experience the proclamation of the Ten Commandments. God first reveals Himself as a coercive being who rescues us from bondage to a cruel human form of oppression and slavery. Then God is revealed as jealous, as demanding exclusivity, as commanding service of an inordinate kind, a God to be cursed and, in Christianity, crucified not simply for what God demands of us, but for the divine sacrifice He makes. We as humans cannot chew gum and swallow at the same time. Giving oneself over to God is a curse for which, at many times, it is God you will want to curse rather than the enemies of God.
What does it mean when we are commanded not to take God’s name in vain? We are reminded of its meaning every day when before our vanities in the washroom we brush our teeth, wash our faces and comb our hair. Do not treat God as a vain possession. God is jealous and you cannot have another God. That means you cannot regard yourself as a God. You cannot be a narcissist. Excessive pride in oneself, especially an admiration for one’s own accomplishments and the face you put before the world, is vanity and is treating God in vain, for one treats God’s creation as if it were God.
Then there is the fourth commandment – to remember the sabbath. Sanctify the sabbath. Do not work on shabat. Study. Reflect. Rest and be blessed. How? By re-commitment. By re-commitment to moral and ethical behaviour, to commanding oneself and taking responsibility for what you do, to understanding that the covenant demands commitment and not just obedience out of fear or desertion because you resent the burden and responsibility that commitment means. Yet also recognizing that, while the Iron Dome may provide a protective cover, defence is unsufficient. Such a retreat is cowardice. You can curse God for the burden placed upon you, the greatest burden being to defend oneself and kill others to do so. Caring for oneself and one’s loved ones, commands us to use coercion, to send fear through the hearts of those who would harm us, and, worst of all, kill bystanders caught up in the maelstrom.
Unfortunately, there is no true face of God. Face a different direction and you see another face. And even that face is hidden behind a veil. It demands that you interpret, that you reflect, that you weigh the use of force against your own moral inhibitions, that as you curse God for the condition you are in, you recognize the blanket of protection a state must and does provide for its people and its citizens.