Getting G-d Right1
You shall greatly beware for your souls, for you did not see any
likeness on the day Hashem spoke to you at Chorev from within the fire. Lest
you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image, a likeness of any
How easy is it to believe in G-d? As easy as it is to believe in one’s self!
Do not expect to find support here for the modern mantra of “if you look
deeply within yourself you will find the truth.” That is not what our
pesukim tell us. Moreover, it is not a Torah position. We do not mean
that one’s inner voice will lead him or her to determine what is right and
what is wrong. We mean holding on to the belief that our inner voice is real
and significant, more real to us than anything else.
Our pesukim exhort us not to make fatal errors about Divinity, based on our
experience at Sinai. We are first tempted to think of this as yet another of
the many warnings in Chumash Devarim against falling into the ways of
idolatry. This does not really work in the text, however.
The object of “be greatly beware” is usually “you,” either in the
singular or plural. In those cases, the implication is that you must
guard yourself against any false influence that you may encounter. In so
doing, you guard and protect your role in staying faithful to the Torah. Our
pasuk is the only one in the Torah (and one of only two in Tanach) in which
the object changes to “your souls.” This subtle difference points to a
danger not to our lives or activities, but to the stuff that nourishes our
souls: clarity about our relationship with G-d.
The Torah warns us not to make any material representation of G-d. When we
do, we endanger and distort our conception of G-d as an invisible,
supernatural, intangible Being. The danger is not that we will abandon the
true G-d for another power, real or imagined. The danger is that we will
alter the way we look at G-d; at stake are our souls, not our selves.
Getting G-d wrong affects the quality of our neshamos. Moreover, our belief
in G-d is related to and intertwined with our understanding of our souls as
the true locus of our individuality and existence.
An ardent materialist has no room for the soul. He has no room in his world
view for anything that is not tangible, measurable and manipulable. He
therefore has no tolerance and no patience for a G-d concept. Neither, for
that matter, can he relate to some invisible, supernatural, intangible part
of himself that others call the soul. His own consciousness and identity are
phenomena that are poorly understood, but he is sure that they are
simply by-products of brain function.
Most of the rest of us take a position completely antipodal to this. Not
only do we reject the materialist point of view, but we have confidence that
the most personal, real and essential part of ourselves is the soul. Despite
our trust of things we can see and manipulate, nothing is more real to us
than our own inner experience. We call that experience and consciousness the
soul. Once we believe in it, we do not have so hard a time in accepting a
Being outside of our selves Who shares many of the same properties.
The gemara fleshes out this thought by finding parallels between G-d and
our souls. Just as G-d fills the world, our souls fill our bodies. G-d sees
but is not seen; the same holds true for the soul. G-d nourishes the world;
the soul nourishes the body; both G-d and the soul are pure.
Pointing out these parallels is important, because through them, belief in
Hashem becomes accessible and certain. When our pesukim tell us to “beware
for our souls,” they mean that we should hold firm to our belief that in
some areas, our senses cannot be the final determinants of truth for us. We
know, trust and value our consciousness, despite it being a poorly
understood intangible. It is the most real part of our existence, identical
with our individuality. We call it the soul, and believe in it more than the
sensory data with which we negotiate most other issues in life. Believing
that our senses are not the end-all of knowledge and reality, we can trust
our belief in a personal G-d as well.
What does this have to do with Sinai? Many others also profess belief in
G-d. Moreover, they look to Sinai as the ultimate reason for that belief.
They trust the Biblical record of a moment in history in which G-d reached
out to Man, and Man directly apprehended Divinity. They find it impossible,
however, to escape the tendency to place all knowledge on the doorstep of
sensory experience. We Jews understand that it was not our eyes and ears
that were important, but our souls that participated in the great event at
Sinai. Others, however, cannot escape their dependence upon eyes and ears of
flesh. In doing so, they shift their understanding of G-d to something that
can and must be known by the senses. Thereby, they horribly change G-d into
something smaller, more limited, more earthly and human.
It is not then any competing god that the Torah warns us against here, but a
corruption of G-d’s Essence. If we turn ma’amad Har Sinai into something
sensory and physical, we will do the same to G-d. We escape this tendency
by reminding ourselves about a non-physical part of ourselves that we value
above all physical existence.
We have only to look inside ourselves to find a model for belief.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Devarim, 4:15-16
2. See Rav Hirsch’s development of the exchange between the nachash and
Chavah. Briefly, he argues that unlike the “truths” that Hashem made
inherent in the behavior of every animal, humans are an exception. For them,
looking into themselves and their natures will not uncover the truth. Humans
can only discover what they need to know by listening to an external voice –
the voice of Hashem’s commandments.
3. See above, 4:9
4. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher wrote, “There is
nothing so inconceivable as that matter should be conscious of itself.”
5. Berachos 10A