Parasha Vayishlach

What Does G-d Look Like? 
Every Sunday morning I visit two classrooms in our Religious School for one of my favorite activities of the week –“Ask the Rabbi”. Usually the teacher and the students prepare a list of questions ahead of time that they want to ask me.  Some of the questions are surprisingly original and profound. A boy in our third grade asked me, “How old are you when you know that you are Jewish?”  I have to admit I never thought about that before. I suppose it would be like asking, “How old are you when you know that you are a boy? — or a girl?” It is the kind of information about yourself that you just know. Most likely, none of us can remember when we learned we were Jewish. In response to that question one third grade girl told us that her family has committee meetings when important things come up in family life. She recalled that when she was three years old her family had a meeting and told her she was Jewish!  This response prompted a little girl sitting next to her to tell us that her family had to put her in a bathtub to make her Jewish – but she did not remember it.  I did not understand that until she told us that she had been adopted.  Oh, I said, you had to go to a mikvah – the ritual bath used in conversions among other things — because you were not born Jewish. This led another child to wonder why it was that her mother, who was Jewish, married her father, who was Christian!  Now we are getting into the nitty-gritty, I thought. I could see the classroom teacher squirming in his seat as I contemplated that one! “Well,” I said “That is easy to answer, — they fell in love! ” As you can see, these questions are full of depth and penetrating curiosity at the same time.  Last week a 5th grader asked me what G-d looked like. As I often do, I explored this with the students before offering an answer. “Does anyone have any ideas,” I asked. This led to a lively discussion. One child thought G-d might look like a giant blue smurf. Another thought G-d might look something like the Genie in the Alladin movie.  I later viewed a picture of the Genie in the Disney movie over the internet and I have to admit that I could understand where this child was coming from.  Another child opined that G-d was invisible. Of course this implies that G-d occupies some kind of space in which G-d is invisible, which is different from saying that G-d cannot be seen. My usual answer to this question is that G-d has no shape and no form and cannot be seen. Perhaps my usual answer is not the entire truth either. After all, the Torah says that there has never been a prophet like Moses, who spoke to G-d “panim el panim” – face to face. And in this week’s Torah portion, we have the story of Jacob wrestling with what is described as an “ish”—the Hebrew for “man”. There is a lot of discussion in the commentaries about whether this is actually a “man” or “an angel”. The Torah tells us that they wrestle throughout the night. The “ish” injures Jacob. As dawn approaches, the “ish” tells Jacob that he needs to go. Yet Jacob holds on. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” says Jacob. The “ish” blesses Jacob and gives him a new name – Yisrael – “because you have wrestled with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” Interestingly, Jacob names the place Peni-el, which means, “I have seen G-d face to face and I have survived.” Why would Jacob name this place “Peni-el” – I have seen G-d face to face – if he was convinced that the “ish” was in fact a man? Jacob seems convinced that he has had an encounter with the divine. So perhaps G-d does have a face, and that face and form looks very much like you and me.  That is certainly easiest to imagine when we look at the innocent faces of our beloved children. This seems to be Jacob’s experience as well. The “man” with whom he wrestles is no “man” at all, but rather G-d himself. So this is how I answered the children this time –that maybe G-d looks like — us!  The Torah tells us that G-d created humankind in G-d’s image. There must be something in our appearance that is similar to G-d. Jacob confirms this later in the parasha. When he finally meets Esau, Jacob implores him to accept the gifts that he has sent his brother. “When I saw your face,” says Jacob, “it was as if I were seeing the face of divinity itself.” In his book, Seek My Face – A Jewish Mystical Theology, Rabbi Arthur Green tells the story of Rav Nachman Kossover, a contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov. Rav Nachman was a mystic who believed that to be close to G-d one had to focus on the four letters of G-d’s name throughout the day. It was said that when Rav Kossover was preaching, he would look out onto the faces of those listening to him and he would see the letters of the divine name on their foreheads. The rabbi fell on hard times and was forced to sell goods in the marketplace for a livelihood. He had a dilemma. How could he remember G-d throughout the day? How could he keep the letters of the Name before him? Surely in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace he would lose his concentration and stray from G-d. He solved his problem by hiring an assistant who accompanied him in his business transactions. That person’s only job was to remind Rabbi Nachman of the divine name. Whenever he would look at the face of his assistant, Rabbi Nachman would remember the name of G-d. The Ten Commandments teach us that we should never make a graven image of G-d. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that his is not because G-d has no image. He taught that this is because G-d has only one image – the image of every single human being.  In saying this Heschel is teaching us that it is idolatry to shape materials into images of G-d. The image of G-d cannot be contained or represented in any concrete image. This is a lessening of the image of G-d, a diminishing of the divine. Rather, we should shape our lives in the divine image. When we strive to fashion our lives to reflect the will of the Almighty, we are truly the living image of G-d. Shabbat Shalom

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Glauber Meyer Pinto Ribeiro

    Isn't it interesting that when talking about G-d we default to telling about what he is not (or has not)? "G-d doesn't have form. Or shape. Or smell. Or an email address." Who are we to say things like that.

    C. S. Lewis had interesting ways to talk about some of these things; when writing about G-d's gender, for example, he argued that G-d is not masculine or feminine, but beyond gender and personality; having infinite more of these things than the humans, not less.

    But in the end, language will always fail us.

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