WHERE is G-d? The Kotzker Rebbe answered, “wherever you let Him in.” It’s a poignant response, but it really answers a different question, “where is G-dliness?”
“Where is G-d” is a philosophical question with a poetic and profound answer in Rashi, based on a phrase in this week’s Torah portion. Due to its pithiness and poetry, this is my favorite Rashi in the Torah.
Exodus 33:21-23 reads:
“ . . . Behold! there is a place near Me; you [Moses] may stand on the rock. When My glory passes by, I shall place you in a cleft of the rock; I shall shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen.”
Readers are sophisticated enough to know that the Torah speaks in anthropomorphisms in order to communicate; G-d has neither hand nor back nor face, but when Moses comes to know G-d’s “back,” he achieves the highest, yet indirect, knowledge of G-d. Direct knowledge of G-d (His “face”) is impossible. G-d says one verse earlier, “No human being can see Me and stay alive.”
Here is my favorite Rashi, commenting on the phrase quoted above (3:21), “there is a place near me”: “The place where the Divine Presence speaks and says, there is a place near Me, and does not say, I am in the place. For the Holy One, Blessed be He, is the place of the world, but the world is not His place.”
The world is contained in G-d; G-d is not contained by the world.
The world is a place “near Me”; but “I am not contained by that place.”
G-d is immanent in the universe, but the universe does not exhaust Him.
As vast, as incomprehensibly large, as the universe is, it is contained in G-d, but His existence, His “size,” as it were, is beyond the universe, beyond measure of distance or time.
G-d is the place of the world, but the world is not His place. For those fluent in the Hebrew, Rashi’s pith is piercing: Hakadosh Baruch Hu mekomo shel olam, ve-ein olamo mekomo.
IN this small section of the Torah, poetry and profundity unroll one verse after the other; verses small in the number, tall in meaning. G-d reveals secrets of His being, including the ultimate secret of His unknowability, in response to Moses’ request to know G-d’s “Ways” (33:13). Moses asks all this, according to Netziv’s reading of the verses, not for himself — not for his own philosophical understanding — but for the sake of G-d’s people. Moses presses his inquiries on G-d in order to be reassured that G-d will care for His people’s defense and livelihood, now and into the future. Thus, in a philosophical context, comes a practical verse (33:19), also profound and poetic:
“ . . . and I shall show favor to whomever I shall show favor, and I shall show mercy to whomever I shall show mercy” [alternatively, per Rashi, “I shall show favor when I choose to show favor, and I shall show mercy when I choose to show mercy”]. Va-hanoti et asher ahon, ve-rihamti et asher arahem.
THERE is a critical message implied here. Anyone, on his own standing, may pray for favor and mercy from G-d. When Moses prayed to G-d to spare His people after the sin of the golden calf, he prayed on the basis of merits of the Patriarchs. Then, and surely now, Jews standing before G-d often feel woefully inadequate, invoking the merits of their pious ancestors in requesting mercy from G-d. The message here, however, is that G-d also responds to prayers from the depths of one’s own soul. That is made explicit a few verses later (34:6), according to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b).
G-d is accessible in still another way, beyond the medium of the merits of ancestors, beyond even one’s own prayers. Here is another passage that moves me, this one from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3a):
Reish Lakish said: Whoever occupies himself in the study of Torah at night, the Holy One, Blessed be He, pulls a thread of mercy over him by day, as it is said, “G-d commands His favor by day [upon whomever made] his song with Me by night” (Psalms 42:9).
Where is G-d?
Wherever we seek Him in prayer.
Wherever we seek Him in study of Torah — especially at night.
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