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Home » Va'etchanan

Vaetchanan: Where is G-d

Submitted by on July 18, 2010 – 3:28 amNo Comment | 2,797 views

In Close Proximity

Where are you closer to G-d, on a serene mountain top surrounded by the beauty of nature or on a loud, dirty street corner in the middle of an inner city? It is true that you might feel closer to G-d on the mountaintop, but this essay will argue that if we feel closer to G-d in any one place, we are not feeling Him at all. Closeness to G-d derives from doing what He wants, not from feeling serene or sanctified and it is in the inner city that we accomplish what G-d expects from us.

The Sudden Pivot at Sinai

A curious affair took place at Sinai just before G-d gave the Ten Commandants. G-d told Moses that He would appear in the thick of a cloud and communicate to the Ten Commandments through Moses, but the Jews begged to see G-d directly. “One cannot compare instructions received from a king to instructions receiving received from through officials; we yearn to see the King.” (1)

G-d granted this request and spoke to the Jews directly. The Jews, elated, approached Moses and said, “Behold, the Lord, our God, has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we saw this day that God speaks with man, yet [man] remains alive.”

However, despite having requested it earlier they now changed their minds. They said to Moses, “So now, why should we die? … if we continue to hear the voice of the Lord, our God, anymore, we will die. For who is there of all flesh, who heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You approach, and hear all that the Lord, our God, will say, and you speak to us.” (2)

This sudden reversal is nothing short of astounding. They had asked to see and hear G-d. They had witnessed that it is possible for man to hear G-d and live. Why did they pivot in the very next sentence and beg to be spared, asserting that they would otherwise die? How could they even suggest that hearing G-d directly might kill them if they had just survived it? The greatest question of all is why did G-d sanction and thus validate this seemingly absurd request?

Supernatural Survival

The answer to our question lies in a little known Talmudic statement that when our ancestors heard the first and second commandments their souls expired from the sheer intensity and sanctity of the moment. Seeing G-d was an exhilarating and ecstatic experience, but it was also overwhelming. Their hearts melted with joy, their souls danced with glee, their spirits rose to unimaginable heights, their veins pulsed with passion; their entire beings aglow with the experience. So rapidly did their spirits ascend that their bodies could no longer contain them; amidst the rapture and glow their bodies gave out. They would have died right there had G-d not tenderly and lovingly restored them to life. (3)

Our ancestors discovered that it is possible to see G-d and survive, but only if G-d chooses to perform a miracle. Barring such supernatural intervention they would have been long dead. This was not the life they desired. They wanted to be fully alive in a physical sense and to accomplish this they requested that G-d speak to them through Moses. It would appear that our ancestors had a good point. After all, G-d agreed with them.

In Real Life

G-d’s purpose in descending unto Sinai was to marry heaven and earth. This does not mean that He wanted humans to escape the clutches of earth to catch a glimpse of heaven. It means that He wanted us to seek and find G-d as we live right here on earth.

When our ancestors begged to see G-d they had hoped to remain alive through natural means. Would this have been possible they would have returned from their experience eminently capable of fulfilling their mandate of marrying heaven and earth. To their chagrin they discovered that this was not easily accomplished. Their attempts to see G-d would have ended in unmitigated disaster had G-d not intervened. They were simply not capable of assimilating such intense holiness and live.

The message thus would have been that one cannot be fully integrated in material life and also have a relationship with G-d. If you want G-d you must opt for the heavens and allow yourself to expire. They therefore reconsidered and charted a new path. They would remain firmly rooted in physical life, but would receive their mandate and their spiritual strength, in albeit diluted form, through Moses. (4)

Who is Closer?

We now return to our original question. Are we closer to G-d when we untangle ourselves from the shackles of distraction and find serenity in a quiet place? The answer is no. Disentangling from life to find G-d is precisely what He does not want. G-d wants us to seek Him within the rhythms of life such as they are. He wants us to seek him out amid the distractions, tumult, questions and insecurities. He wants us to find Him in our puny little lives for if G-d cannot be found in the thicket; He is not the G-d we seek.

He wants us to discover that distractions and obsessions, weaknesses and failures are all created by G-d and that they mark the road to sublimation. He wants us to learn that somewhere in our roiling confusion lays a hidden, but heavenly path that is the raison d’etre of existence; it is the epicenter of life, the pinnacle of the Divine master plan and the purpose for which the world was created.

When are you closest to G-d? When the real you wrestles with real life, addresses real concerns, confronts real issues and, despite it all, succeeds in making space for G-d. He does not want you to escape your reality to find Him; He wants to be found within your reality. He wants you; not the person you become when you escape yourself.

Let us remember that a relationship with G-d is forgeable within the parameters of every day life despite its challenges, trials and tribulations. Let us remember that every failure is an opportunity to scale new heights, every obstacle masks a hidden treasure and in every temptation lays a wellspring of holiness. Sometimes we must dig for it, but if we dig deep enough then within ourselves we shall find. (5) (6)


  1. Exodus
    19: 9. See Mechilta and Rashi’s commentary. See also Shemos Rabbah 12:
  2. Duetoronomy
  3. Babylonian
    Talmud, Shabbos 88b.
  4. Moses
    was able to speak to G-d directly and survive by natural means. This is
    why Moses is called the man of G-d, so G-dly is this man as to be a
    clear amalgam of both. See Devarim Rabbah 11:4.
  5. This
    essay is based on Sefer Hasichos 5749 p.
  6. The
    request to hear the ten Commandments through Moses is chanted from the
    Torah on the Shabbat after Tisha B’av; the fast day that commemorates
    the destruction of the second Temple. We might suggest that the campaign
    to sublimate the physical world began on a truly global scale after the
    temple was destroyed and G-d dispersed His children throughout the
    world. Since this request represents the formula of the campaign’s
    success it is appropriate to read it on the Shabbat immediately
    following Tisha B’av. This Shabbat is one of forward looking optimism.
    The mourning for our loss is now behind us and we begin to anticipate
    the gains portended by that loss. To this end we refocus on the formula
    that ensures success, which is why we read this Torah portion on this

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