when God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments to our entire people at Mount Sinai. The most frequently asked question in Jewish life today is: “Why doesn’t God speak to us like that now?”
We say: “If only we had as clear a sign of God’s presence as our ancestors had, universal Jewish commitment would follow.”
Of course, our ancestors had such signs and they still worshipped idols for hundreds of years. But, perhaps, we are looking in the wrong direction for such clarity. If we assume that the only way that God can speak to us is the way Cecil B. de Mille portrayed God’s voice in The Ten Commandments, we are bound to be disappointed. There are other possibilities.
The Jewish mystics understood God’s speech more broadly. To speak is to communicate one’s essence; even we are not limited to words when want to reveal what is deepest within us. Picasso spoke to us through his paintings. Someone who wants to know the soul of Picasso must become absorbed by his art. Even if Picasso could have a conversation with us today, no words he could say would better express who he is than his paintings. An interview with Beethoven would tell us little about the soul of this musician, yet he speaks to our soul across hundreds of years through his music.
So it is, say the mystics, with God. Like every great artist, God expresses what lies most deeply within His soul through his creation. God spoke by creating the world. We are God’s “Picassos,” God’s artistic masterpieces. And, just as Beethoven composed many pieces, God created many people, mountains, oceans, stars and planets, and all the varied creatures of the earth. To hear God’s speech and to know the soul of God is to listen intently to the people and the world around us. To know another person most deeply is to love that person. This, say the mystics, is the path to knowing God and hearing God’s voice.
The mystics use another metaphor to communicate a similar idea. They say God is Ayin, or Nothing. That sounds puzzling until we divide the word nothing into no-thing. A table is a thing — it is easily definable by its parts. There is very little mystery about a table.
My cat, however, is a little more elusive. In most ways, he is like any other cat and I can define him by his biological ingredients and sum up most of who he is. But not completely. He is, after all, my cat. He may be mostly “thing,” definable materials, but he has a personality that is not quite captured by a clinical description.
A human being has the most no-thingness in the created world. Try and describe someone you love and you will soon come up short. You can speak of his height, the color of her hair or even the way he plays piano. But, when you try to describe what you most love about your friend, you will be at a loss for words. In most ways, we are “things.” That is, we are definable and predictable by our biological parts. Yet, there is a mystery about each of us, a uniqueness that eludes definition. That is the most important part of us. It’s what makes us “us” and no one else. This is our no-“thing”-ness. It is also the most lovable part of us, because what we love about our friend is precisely what is uniquely her and no one else.
Now, multiply that no-thing quality exponentially. Imagine someone who is only no-thing, who only has that unique, indefinable, lovable part — someone who has a nothing about him that is just like everyone else. That is what God is like: Ultimate loveability. So, a path to God who is no-thing is to seek to know the no-thing in each other, to listen intently for and pursue and cherish the most lovable and ultimately unknowable part of our friends and loved ones. In hearing their unique voices, we hear an echo of God’s voice.
In Parashat Vayera, God reveals Himself to Abraham and then apparently “says” nothing. Three men appear on the horizon and Abraham rushes to welcome them into his home. But what happened to God’s communication? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that Abraham heard the voice of God through his own act of hospitality. No literal words were spoken. Rather, by doing an act of great kindness, Abraham came closer to God and understood the soul of God more deeply.
If we spend our lives waiting to hear a basso profundo, we will likely conclude that God is absent. Yet, opportunities to hear God’s voice are abundant. All we have to do is take a step closer to each other