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Shavuout: The oneness of G-d

G-d is one. In trying to understand the oneness of G-d, the “what” is often rendered subservient to the “how,” and because the how is at best only imprecisely apprehended, the whole subject of G-d’s oneness often is either put aside or given short shrift. By the “what” I mean the fact of the oneness of G-d and its corollaries. By the “how,” I mean the various philosophic and kabbalistic mechanisms that attempt to explain how the contingent, finite human being can know G-d and can know that G-d is one; and how the one, infinite G-d can coexist with the finite universe. The quandaries that inevitably arise when addressing the “how” have wrongly come to overshadow the tremendous, indeed, the overpowering reality of the “what,” the oneness of G-d. Primary attention should be paid to G-d’s oneness and to what it means for awe, theodicy, mercy, justice, disappointment and doubt, Torah study and prayer, mortal and post-mortal existence, and the perception of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself gives G-d a power that is incommensurate with any power known to the human being, from the power to hurt oneself by missing a nail and hitting one’s thumb to the power to explode an entire city and, perhaps, an entire planet with nuclear weapons. To say that G-d is one is to say that G-d’s power is inherent, and that G-d is all powerful. Again, “all powerful” does not mean an extension, even an immeasurably large extension, of any human power. To say that G-d is all powerful does not mean that G-d is more powerful than a nuclear bomb, or possesses more knowledge than the most sophisticated computer. However, there is an important sense in which G-d’s power is valuably compared to human power, and that is the potential of the human being, his own finitude notwithstanding, to know G-d’s power. This is the first corollary of G-d’s oneness and power: It is accessible to the human being. How is this so? How is this to be explained? I do not know. But its explanation, or the lack thereof, does not change it and is not the central point. The human being may stand in knowledge of, in witness to, and in utter beatitude before G-d’s power, His inherent oneness.

This is the first corollary: The human potential for awesome humility, awesome blessedness, awesome witness to the oneness of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself has a direct implication for human failings and sufferings, including human injustice. How may one explain the death of a child, the victimization of the innocent by thievery, deception, or violence, the existence of serial murderers and mass murderers? How? I do not know. But I can know that because G-d is one, every murdered or otherwise violated person will find an ultimate justice with G-d. The all powerfulness of G-d, which is the same as the oneness of G-d, means that every unjust, painful fragmentation of the human being — be it physical, economic or emotional — will ultimately be absorbed in G-d, reconciled there, transcended there, and forgotten there. Because G-d created the human being, G-d has ultimate rule over the human being and all of his failings and sufferings. The all powerfulness of G-d is but another signification for the mercy of G-d, Who ultimately absorbs and transfigures every human pain. Since this constitutes what human beings often call the wheels of justice, the all powerfulness of G-d means that mercy and justice are not balanced against each other within G-d, but are one, because G-d is one.

This is the second corollary: The certainty that every violation of G-d’s law, every act of injustice, will be righted, because of the oneness of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself gives human life, with all its doubts and disappointments, an ultimate redemption. Life itself is a series of attempts at knowledge and fulfillment, struggles to overcome doubts and jilted hopes. In the end, even the most accomplished life may be filled with unachieved aspirations. How sharp — and how given to jealousy — those failures loom. Midrash observes that if a person has one portion, he wants two; if he secures two, he wants four. How blatant it seems that another person has more money, more status, more love, more children, more knowledge, more opportunities, more talents, more fame, more victories, more beauty, more influence, or more piety, than I. Even when I have achieved something I never thought I could, how blatant it seems that another person achieved it earlier, or better, or more amply, than I. And if, on the other hand, I profess to be satisfied, is it not so that all this means is that I have resigned myself to my lot and accepted my limitations? Either way, unsatisfied or resignedly satisfied, my life seems but a fragment of what it should be or could have been. In G-d’s oneness, in G-d’s all powerfulness, the human being becomes at one with Something so unimaginably larger, fuller — perfectly fuller — than his own aspirations, that disappointment is consumed and, by definition, doubt is illumined.

This is the third corollary: The contingencies and inadequacies of human life ascend into Perfection, the oneness of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself stands in quizzical relationship with the study of the Torah. The Torah is a panorama of multiplicity: words, ideas, signs, calligraphy, literary relationships, and commentary.

The study of Torah is the deep involvement with minutiae, with the mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic, with the drawing of distinctions between the pure and impure, the permitted and forbidden, the ethical and unethical, the moral and immoral, and the innocent and guilty. These distinctions yield both general principles and the rendering of highly individualized decisions in real life situations. Multiplicity, not oneness, is the nature of Torah study. And yet, the Torah is the will of G-d and study of the Torah prepares one to apprehend the oneness of G-d. How is this so? How do debates in the Torah and its Talmudic commentary about disputed property, such as a tallit, or about immersion in an artesian well lacking 40 se’ah, prepare one to apprehend the oneness of G-d? I do not know. But study of the Torah is the preparation for apprehending the oneness of G-d; prayer is the medium through which it is apprehended; and the Land of Israel, Divinely sanctified and selected, is where it takes place more often, more amply, and more directly than anywhere else.

This is the fourth corollary: Torah, prayer, and the Land of Israel spawn the perception of the oneness of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself has one meaning in life and a qualitatively different meaning after death. In life, the human being may know and witness G-d’s power, and may affirm G-d’s justice and perfection.

But the human being’s utter beatitude before G-d’s power and oneness pales in comparison with post-mortal existence; and the human being’s affirmation of G-d’s justice and perfection pales in comparison with post-mortal knowledge. After death, the human soul is absorbed into G-d, judged for its sins, yet also purified of its sins and thus emptied of its inadequacies. The disappointments of human life are transcended, its sufferings vindicated, its doubts transfigured. How can the post-mortal soul participate in the absolute oneness of G-d? How can there be an accretion of billions of souls into G-d, and still an absolute oneness of G-d? I do not know. But G-d is the Living G-d and human souls live in G-d.

This is the fifth corollary. The unity of G-d is beyond contingency and beyond parts, and human souls become part of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself reflects a paradox within the seemingly sterile medieval discussion over whether there is an “infinite extension.” Of what need is there for an item that begins in a discrete, identifiable, finite location and then extends forever? Logically, how can something be infinite and yet have a beginning? What relevance could this discussion have? It is, indeed, relevant, and, indeed, there is such a thing as an infinite extension, in this sense: the human being can access the oneness of G-d, can know G-d, but not G-d in His totality. This is a paradox. From out of a finite, limited, discrete condition, the human being can know G-d in His oneness. The Infinite appears to have a starting point: human knowledge of G-d. As such, G-d appears to have a discrete starting point and then to extend forever. In actuality, there is no starting point to G-d, and G-d is not an infinite extension; but given the finite human condition and the infinity, the oneness of G-d, human knowledge of G-d amounts to perception of an infinite extension.

This is the sixth corollary. The oneness and infinity of G-d do not preclude human perception and knowledge of G-d.


G-d is one. That in and of itself transcends any deficiency in understanding that G-d is one. Rabbi Benjamin J. Zilber once observed in a teshuvah talk between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “For those who go to the beach on Yom Kippur, the reality of Divine judgement on that day does not change.” A complete disregard of a reality does not change it. G-d is one, however differently He may be conceived. And G-d’s judgement exists only within that oneness, however differently or colorfully it may be conceived. This means that there is no “Heaven” or “Hell” in the sense that these terms connote duration. Absent mortal life in this created universe, there is no duration, no continued existence, outside G-d. G-d’s oneness, G-d’s perfection, G-d’s eternity, is incommensurate with time and exclusive of duration. A “heaven” in which saints meet and greet, or a “hell” in which sinners are subject to fires, are examples of duration.

There is no eternal duration alongside the oneness of G-d. There is neither reward nor punishment in the sense of wordly felicity or pain.

This is the seventh corollary: The human being may grow in perceiving the oneness of G-d, but, along the path of growth, deficiencies in perceiving the oneness of G-d do not change its reality.

Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso Le-olam Va’ed.

IJN Executive Editor |

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