This Thing Makes God Appear: Commentary on Parashat Shemini 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
I trust scientists when they report that bees can see ultraviolet, a color beyond the human visible spectrum. My own time using microscopes back in a high school science lab assured me that amoebae and cells compose a dynamic microbiological world that my own eyes could witness only if assisted by technology. There is no special lens that renders love, hatred, or any other emotion into something that we can see—but we have all felt feelings and have no doubts that emotions are real, even if they are technically invisible.
Our species has achieved wonders by finding proofs for ultraviolet rays, single-celled organisms, and feelings—all of which naturally elude human eyesight. Has the human species yet found proof of God though? What evidence do we have for an invisible Being that views all of existence; an inaudible moral Voice that aims to address us all; a mythical Power for whom we build houses (of prayer) that sometimes feel vacant?
Moses dealt with the same theological headache we all face: How can we know there is a God? And if we can know that there is such a deity, could we share this knowledge with others?
Last week’s Torah reading ended with the completion of the first seven days of the ordination ceremony that would lead to Aaron and his sons officially becoming the priestly leaders of the Israelite religion (Leviticus 8). This week, Parashat Shemini invites students of the Torah across the world to pick up at the eighth day of these rituals. Although Moses initially addresses just the new priests-to-be and the elders among the people Israel, eventually Moses address the entire nation.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה תַּעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד יְהֹוָֽה׃
Moses said, “This is the thing that Adonai commanded: you shall do [this], and the substance of Adonai shall appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:6.)
What constitutes “this thing” (“זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר,” zeh haddavar) that Moses is referencing must depend on context—but the text provides few details. The previous verse concludes with the people standing in front of Adonai’s presence, and Moses no longer is addressing by the time we reach the following verse. It is only natural then that rabbinic sages throughout the ages have posited different understandings of what “this thing” is that Moses said could make God appear.
Rabbi Ovadyah Seforno of 15th–16th century Italy reviewed the instructions that Moses told Aaron to convey to the Israelites on this eighth day—that the whole nation should take a goat as an expiatory offering plus a calf and a one-year-old sheep for the whole-burnt sacrifice (Leviticus 9:3). Rabbi Seforno, explaining Leviticus 9:6, depicts Moses saying the words “this thing” and motioning towards his hands physically taking hold of the communal sacrifices. Perhaps God would appear in our ancestors’ physical attachment to the very entities they were about to give up.
Any literalist tendency in interpreting what Moses meant by “this thing” though was far from the favored approach that Jewish tradition advanced. Until the 20th century, most rabbinic commentators on Leviticus 9:6 drifted far from the words of the Torah scroll. Sifra, the classic midrashic collection of early rabbinic teachings on the Book of Leviticus, imagined Moses pointing to something far deeper:
אמר להם משה לישראל אותו יצר הרע העבירו מלבכם ותהיו כולכם ביראה אחת ובעצה אחת לשרת לפני המקום. כשם שהוא יחידי בעולם כך תהא עבודתכם מיוחדת לפניו. שנאמר (דברים י, טז-יז) ״ומלתם את ערלת לבבכם״ – מפני מה? – ״כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים״. עשיתם כן – ״ירא אליכם כבוד השם.״
Moses said to Israel, “Extract from your heart that evil inclination, and you all shall be [linked] to one [sense of] awe and to one school of serving in the presence of the Omnipresent [God]. Just as God is unique in the universe, so too shall your service be unique[ly devoted] to God’s presence.” [This is what is meant] when [in the Torah it is stated], “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16). For what [purpose shall you do this]? “For Adonai your God is the God of [all] gods and Master of all masters” (Deuteronomy 10:17). [Moses said to Israel,] “If you do as such [by extracting any evil from your heart, then] ‘the substance of Adonai shall appear to you’ (Leviticus 9:6).” (Shemini, Mekhileta DeMillu’im 2:6.)
This old rabbinic midrash depicts Moses revealing that the secret to feeling God’s presence is embedded in what happens when we soften our hearts, removing ill will from within us. It is almost as if Sifra believes that the whole point of all of these rituals is just to make us kinder people.
Read on the surface, the Book of Leviticus often turns towards the esoterica of slaughtering, blood-sprinkling, vestments, and other matters that have mostly fallen to the wayside in contemporary Jewish practice. Sifra, here and elsewhere, recognizes how unrelatable the Book of Leviticus can feel to Rabbinic Judaism. Sifra converts Leviticus from an Israelite cultic cookbook into a Jewish religious guidebook.
I believe that the moral dimensions of contemporary Judaism are critical for building an ethical modern society at large. At the same time, I believe that Jewish rituals that are less concerned with humans and more focused on our relationship to God (for example, prayer, Shabbat, Torah study, and the like) bring beauty, structure, and meaning to our daily lives. Likewise I know that I am not alone in Jewish history to suspect that a Judaism of high ethics alone is an insufficient form of Judaism. Had all Jews over the last millennium and a half been satisfied with Sifra’s moralistic rereading of Leviticus 9:6, no rabbis would have jumped in to suggest that Moses knew some other secret way to make God present, beyond being kind-hearted.
Rabbi Seforno and the anonymous author of Sifra were far from the only commentators to offer original interpretations of Leviticus 9:6, but we can easily locate their approaches among extreme ends of a spectrum. Rabbi Seforno believed that God resided in the detailed instructions for conducting sacrifices: that God might appear when our ancestors formed their hands in just the right shapes when holding onto the animals they would soon release. Sifra—despite its obsession with the Book of Leviticus—sought to rank Leviticus as secondary to an ethical code of conduct that invites God’s presence in all of our interpersonal relationships.
Judaism has never thrived as a monolith; we do not have a single doctrine, a single reading, or a single practice that encompasses the entirety of our lives. Where Judaism does flourish though is in the marriage between the literalism espoused by rabbis like Seforno and the symbolism endorsed by texts like Sifra. By conjoining a devotion to the sacred with a commitment to ethical living, Jewish religion truly comes alive. We read Leviticus 9:6 through neither a single microscope nor the conclusions of one scholar alone, and we do not read this verse by trusting our gut feelings and nothing else. Rather, as heirs to the rabbinic tradition, we are compelled to read the Torah with the whole mosaic of interpretations that together paint a picture of something far richer than any single understanding of the text could provide.
God might be invisible, inaudible, intangible, and far beyond what any of us can truly sense—but there is a secret to making God appear. God appears in the multitudes—when we come together to seek God, when our teachers and our students learn truths from each other and from everyone among them, and when we realize that the rituals we perform are holy when they are accompanied by good and righteous actions. That is how we show God to the world; that is how we share God with the world.
This is the thing: all of the things—the multitudes.
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