The Zohar (Bereshit 1b) teaches that belief in God in its essence contains unanswerable questions, and God’s very name “Elohim” hints at this. The word “Elohim” (אלוהים) is made up of the words “mi” (מי – who) and “eleh” (אלה – this). These two words express two different facets of our relationship to God: The word “mi” (who) expresses that which is beyond our grasp, the aspect of God about which we can ask questions but will never receive complete answers. The word “eleh” (this) expresses the aspects of Godliness that can be defined. The word “Elohim” represents the balance of these two realities – that which can be defined and that which is forever beyond definition.
In this vein, the Zohar suggests an explanation for the sin of the Golden Calf, which takes place in our parsha. After the revelation of Mount Sinai, Moshe ascends the mountain. When he delays in his return, the nation is overcome with doubt, and in the ensuing panic, Aaron builds the golden calf for the people:
And the nation saw that Moshe delayed in his descent of the mountain. And the people gathered around Aaron and they said, “Come, make us a god to walk before us, for this man Moshe who took us out of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him… And he made them a molten calf and they proclaimed “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (Shmot 32:1,4)
The nation inaugurated their new god with the cry “This is your god, Israel.” The people of Israel thought that god is only a “this” – a defined god at which they could point. They forgot, or couldn’t handle, the mystery of the “who” – of a god who is undefined and beyond grasp. This was the source of the sin of the golden calf. In the words of the Zohar, “those who sinned by the golden calf – on this mystery they said ‘this is your god Israel’ … the [very] mystery on which the world exists.” When Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai revealed these words, Rebbe Eleazer and his companions fell before him weeping and said ‘If we had only come into the world to hear those words, it would have been enough.’ (Zohar Bereshit 2a)
The Zohar highlights the deepest yet most basic downfall in the story – Am Yisrael wishes for a human god, one they can see and feel. They found it too difficult to accept the notion of a God that cannot be perceived in physical reality. In a moment of confusion and uncertainty, when Moshe’s fate was unclear, they lost all confidence and created a material god.
In response to the Golden Calf and the declaration “this is your god, Israel,” Moshe summons the faithful remnant with the cry “Mi L’Hashem Eilai” (Whoever is for God, come unto me). As pointed out by Mordechai Zeller, the crucial fixing is to attach “Who” to the name of God, to reconnect the divine with the mystery, the question, and the incomprehensible. Part of the atonement for the sin of the golden calf is the institution of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, one of the most famously inexplicable mitzvot (See Rashi on Bamidbar 19:2). To heal from the sin of the Golden Calf, the People of Israel must develop the ability to accept that which is beyond their grasp and understanding.
God Cannot be Grasped
The God that can be defined is not God, for a definition is finite, and God is infinite, containing and encompassing all. In the words of Rav Kook:
Every definition of God brings about heresy. Definitions are spiritual idolatry, even a definition of [God’s] intellect and will. Even Godliness itself and the name God is a definition, and without the elevated knowledge that all these are nothing but sparks of that which is above definition, they too would bring about heresy (Orot, pgs 124-125).
Many nations that ponder divinity have reached this conclusion. The Tao Te Ching opens with the understanding that “the Tao which can be told is not the complete Tao.” The unfathomable which lies at the foundation of reality grants it life and existence. As The Little Prince tells the fox, “my secret is … anything essential is invisible to the eye.” Or in the words of the holy Zohar: “Without mystery the world does not exist” (Idra Raba 128a).
The enigma which surrounds our understanding of God gives value and meaning to life. The same is true of human relationships. Many people have expressed to me the feeling that no one really knows who they are. They have their revealed, public world, where they interact with others, but their internal world remains hidden and they are unable to find anyone with whom to share it. But despite the frustration in this realization, and the loneliness and isolation that such feelings can cause, these same individuals would never be willing to give up the privacy of their personal, intimate world. The best response to this realization, therefore, is to acknowledge that in every interaction there is an aspect of the other which is beyond one’s grasp. This awareness, even if it can’t be defined, has the potential to deepen and enrich the way we relate to others.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.)
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