The Greatness Beyond Our Grasp

February 1, 2013
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David Wolpe

Religious life moves along two complementary vectors: upward and inward. We speak about finding God through self-examination (“I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” Psalm 139:14) and also in the heavens (“The heavens declare the glory of God,” Psalm 19:1). Whether the metaphor is one of depth or height, the orientation begins with us.

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and writer on the archetypal personality, noticed that ancient mandalas had a god at the center; modern mandalas, to the contrary, center on a human being. Belief in what is above us has increasingly moved to what is within us. Even when not awash in the hubristic, New-Age silliness that calls us gods, we are still accustomed to thinking of God as a service provider, performing tasks for us or for our team, or moving through us as opposed to having any independent existence. God has been not only dethroned, but given a seat next to us in the bleachers.

Yet the nagging sense persists in us all that “we are nothing.” Our minds are so limited that by definition we cannot know all that we cannot know. Moved at times by a desire to reduce everything to human dimensions, we neglect the sheer overwhelmingness of the cosmos through which we pass on our brief journey. While God may be, at times, reduced to the dimensions of our own psyches, deep down we recognize how infinitesimal we are.

The beginning of the Torah teaches that we live in a fragment of a much greater reality. A created world by definition is smaller than that which birthed it into existence. “Man sees but half,” in Browning’s poetic overestimation. We see far less while believing we see far more. Understanding how little we know, we seek not to understand a definitive answer, but to advance our knowledge bit by bit, with openness to others.

The single characteristic that Moses is marked for in the Torah is humility. Having experienced God panim el panim, face-to-face, Moses — more than anyone — is in a position to recognize how little of the totality he is equipped to master.

Our first conclusion must be that above us is something that should persuade us of the vulnerability, humility, and awe that was characteristic of a traditional religious posture — not one of total self-abnegation; that is alien to the Jewish spirit. We are not really “nothing.” We recall God’s initial charge to Ezekiel: “Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak to you.” (Ezekiel 2:1)  Upright is the truest posture of encounter. Nonetheless, to contemplate what is above and not feel awe is to be religiously tone deaf.

Yet we cannot be left with awe alone. Creatureliness, the sense that we are dependent creations, a sense granted from our earliest years, is a cherished emotion but a poor motivator. To be true to the experience of looking above and looking within, we must also look elsewhere.

Judaism introduces another vector, a line that leads straight to the “other,” for only by sharing our sense of inadequacy can we travel together through the wilderness. We are astounded, stunned, by the cloud-by-day and the pillar-of-fire-by-night. But we need not feel small alone. Humility shared is humility eased. And false grandiosity dissolves in community. When everyone looks up in awe at the sky, marveling at the uncountable stars, the pavilion beyond which stretches we know not what grandeur, none of us need feel that we are a sole, small being against the background of greatness. What is above us? More than we can imagine. What is beside us? The selfsame product of stardust alchemically combined into a thinking, feeling, loving, erring, and uncertain being.

Our relationship to God has, in our day, grown too familiar. The traditional concept had great intimacy (think of the Yiddish term for God — “tattenu,” our daddy) while never losing the paired certainty that God was immeasurably beyond human reckoning.

We are poorer for the loss of awe. Our mastery is impressive, but only by our own standards. We bow in appreciation of a majesty we can intuit but never know. Our hearts swell with gratitude that, for a brief flash of light, we are here to give thanks.

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