The difference between seeing and perceiving

  • RabbiGreg
What does G-d look like? If you ask most people this, they would be hard-pressed to give you an answer, while kids would probably draw a sunbeam or an old man on a cloud. Our Torah portion describes Moses and Aaron and 70 elders of Israel going up Mount Sinai, “and they saw the G-d of Israel” (Exodus 24). What did they see? The rabbinic commentators were puzzled because we are told later that you cannot see G-d and live (Exodus 33). How was it possible for this group of leaders to see G-d and live?
by Rabbi Greg Alexander, Temple Israel Cape Town | Feb 08, 2018

A commentary by Nachmanides (1194-1270) takes us back to the kids and their drawings. He suggests, as many commentators do, that it wasn’t G-d Herself that the elders saw, as G-d does not have a literal body. When the Torah describes G-d’s back or outstretched arm, it is figurative language to explain an aspect of G-d that we might understand better through a metaphor.

Nachmanides points out that it was the elders of Israel, not everyone, who “saw” G-d, as mentioned in our portion, implying that it was their age and stature that allowed them to perceive what others could not. As we grow up, our perception of G-d needs to change. We begin to move past our early childhood understanding of G-d and take on a more sophisticated theology – or do we?

In my experience, while our schools work us hard on maths and science, many people retain this idea of the “old man on the cloud” right into adulthood. This is often the reason for many people rejecting a belief in G-d and becoming agnostic or atheist. Once they experience pain or sadness, they ask why this G-d, who is supposed to be a wise, beneficent old man, would allow evil in the world. And their (child-taught but not adult-appropriate) picture is shattered as it is not sophisticated enough to handle the hard questions.

There are libraries filled with books that contain teachings from all the great religions of the world, that wrestle with the ideas of what G-d looks like and, more importantly, how G-d acts in the world. How can a world that contains war, corruption, plague and pain possibly be governed by a G-d that is all powerful and all good? Jewish tradition – from King David through Job to Maimonides and on to the Holocaust and today – is filled with great minds and thrilling discussions around how G-d operates in a complicated world.

But for many, those teachings will never be read, because they gave up on G-d long ago.

May this Shabbat give us the inspiration to review the tough questions and delve into perhaps the biggest challenge of our lives: understanding who we are and why we are in this world, and what G-d wants of us. May we merit the experience of Moses, Aaron and the elders to have a perception of the Divine.


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