May 18, 2024
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The greatest drama of human history was about to unfold. It had been 2500 years since man’s first disobedience, and since humanity had been expelled from Eden. During this dark period, Hashem’s presence was obscured by a hostile world of violence and immorality. Finally, His chosen people were about to welcome Him back into the human realm.

Hashem had liberated us from Egyptian tyranny, and had provided us safe and dry passage through a watery ocean bed. By worshiping a golden idol, we betrayed our loyalties and were very close to forfeiting our destiny. Responding to our furious prayers, Hashem relented and was now prepared to descend into our realm and lodge His presence in a human-crafted abode. Excitement and anticipation filled the barren desert dunes as history was about to change.

Suddenly, the unexpected occurred. Hashem’s presence flooded the inner chamber of the Tabernacle, sealing it against human entry. The greatest religious project in history concluded with Moses—the greatest man to ever live—standing outdoors, unable to breach the house of Hashem. At the conclusion of this long-awaited reunion between man and God, man is left outside in the cold, distant from Hashem.

Two Modes

Our relationship with Hashem is braced by two contrasting mentalities. Our souls reach out to the great beyond, searching for a connection with our Creator in heaven. We compile a multi-layered relationship with Hashem through various religious experiences: we study His word and exercise His commandments. In moments of weakness, we petition Him in prayer, and in moments of triumph, we express our gratitude. We partner with Him in relandscaping a fallen world into a better place. We carve our own moral personalities based upon His example. There are many avenues through which we seek a relationship with Hashem.

Though Hashem isn’t human, we overlay human relationships onto our relationship with Him, lending it greater passion. For example, we view Him as our Father or, sometimes, as our Husband—even though He is neither. By simulating human interactions with Hashem, we craft an emotional relationship with Him.

Beyond

Despite our best efforts at building that relationship, Hashem lies beyond human comprehension. As no word found in the human vocabulary aptly describes Him, He remains indecipherable. To paraphrase Isaiah 55: “His thoughts are unlike our thoughts and His ways are unlike our ways.” Religion demands submission to an unknowable Being—forever unfathomable—and forever lying beyond the realm of human experience. As much as we try to know Him, we know that we cannot fully know Him.

These two complementary modes to our relationship with Hashem form a powerful combination. We attempt to better understand Him, while realizing that we are chasing an elusive unknown. Religion may not always make sense, but we are—nonetheless—locked in a relationship with a Higher being, whose logic defies human comprehension.

Despite our efforts to draw Him into our world and into our lives, we—like Moshe—stand outside, unable to penetrate the mystery. This duality lends Judaism its potency and its latency. Knowledge and mystery. Rationality and trust. Visibility and fog. Entering and remaining outside. Close, but distant. Ahavah and yirah.

The Distance of Exile

The jagged revolutions of Jewish history toppled this delicate calibration between distance and nearness. As the Jewish exile prolonged itself, the Jewish world became darker, and Hashem appeared ever more distant. The course of Jewish history baffled us, and ancient biblical promises became obscured during excruciating periods of Jewish suffering. During the long exile, Hashem’s plan for His people was veiled and His presence was hidden as hatred and discrimination devoured our people. During exile, Jewish faith was built upon a platform of mystery and Hashem felt very distant.

Chassidus

In the 18th century, a bold movement determined to bridge the ever-growing distance between Hashem and His people, stressing that we were forever bound to a God, though invisible, continued to drive our historical arch. Chassidus underscored the great love between Hashem and His people, a love which could outlast the dark tunnel of Jewish exile. Hashem still had a larger plan for Jewish history, but its trajectory wasn’t always obvious. Chassidus rescued Jews from historical depression—restoring faith in a God who appeared distant, but was closer than anyone could imagine.

Turning the Tables of History

In the past century, history has shifted, and with it, our relationship with Hashem has been transformed. In 1948, the heavens parted, as our state and our sovereignty were restored, amidst great miracles. After thousands of years of radio silence, Hashem was clearly speaking to us, and He felt closer than He had been in 1000s of years. Are we too close? Is there actually an issue of being too close to Hashem?

Knowing the Ways of Hashem

Elated with redemptive fervor, many religious Jews have been feeling too close with Hashem and exude unrealistic and unhealthy confidence—claiming to “precisely” know Hashem’s will. As the tables of history have turned in our favor, some religious Jews have felt too confident in their relationship with Hashem. We think we know exactly what He wants, and we can adopt policies based upon that certain knowledge.

Seventeen years ago, Israel willfully disengaged from our Gaza settlements, attempting to advance greater peace. Unfortunately, hopes for peace were cruelly dashed and we were left with a terrorist state on our Western border. In the leadup to this traumatic event, some rabbanim in Israel assured us that this would not—and could not—happen. Hashem could not possibly allow His chosen people to be evicted from His chosen land. Several rabbanim issued a well-known Hebrew guarantee of “hayo lo tihyeh,” assuring that this calamity would not happen. Hashem would not allow it. After all, in the modern state of Israel, religious people know Hashem’s will.

I was surprised that such a brash guarantee was issued. Eighty years earlier, Hashem had allowed the holocaust and had allowed 6 million to be murdered. No human imagination can possibly understand that horror—yet, Hashem allowed it to happen. If Hashem can allow a holocaust to occur, He can also allow a Jewish government to peacefully relocate 8000 Jews without loss of life. Sometimes, Hashem takes actions which the human mind can’t comprehend. For centuries we have lived with this awareness, and we have accepted harsh fates—even when they have confused us. Now that we have returned, we expect Hashem’s will to always align with human understanding. It doesn’t always happen, and we shouldn’t gamble upon divine will.

This episode wasn’t just troubling to me, but was also troubling to many adolescent and young adult Israelis still in the process of building their faith. They were assured that Hashem would not allow this disengagement, but they woke up one August morning to discover that it had, indeed, occurred. Being assured of the divine will and discovering those assurances to be incorrect, can destabilize faith. Sadly, many lost their faith.

We are close and yet, we are far. We understand Him and yet, He remains a mystery. So, it has been for thousands of years and so, it will remain. This is what makes our religion so robust.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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