Nehemiah: Greatness ‎

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			The twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent the close of the Tanakh, and to some degree, ‎the end of the Biblical period. The two books were probably one at some point in time. In the ‎traditional grouping of the Tanakh they are considered one book. Ezra was the religious ‎leader of the new group of returnees from Bavel around the year 450 BCE. He was joined a ‎few decades or so later by Nehemiah, a former servant to the Persian king. Upon being ‎overcome at hearing the dire situation of his co-religionists in Judea, he begs the king to be ‎allowed to join them and assist them. The king not only agrees to this request but grants him ‎safe passage and access to the timber in the forests. ‎
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The dire situation of the Jews was due to their lack of physical protection. They had no city ‎walls, an essential feature of ancient communities. Nehemiah’s express purpose in going to ‎Israel is to build walls around Jerusalem. While it was a long and difficult project, in the end ‎he was successful by any definition of the word success. It was moment of great triumph for ‎the new community, a major early step in what would become the center of the Jewish world ‎for hundreds of years. They built a primitive version of a temple in the traditional spot of the ‎old temple. They brought offerings to celebrate their achievement and to bless God for ‎enabling them to reach this state. It was the first day of the seventh month, a time of ‎celebration. ‎
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Finally on the 24th day of the month they are ready for a general commemoration not based on ‎anything in the Torah. It involves fasting and confession, reading from the Torah and bowing ‎before Hashem – very Biblical. The Levites and various other notables stand on the stairs and ‎proclaim: ‘Rise and bless Hashem your God, from everlasting to everlasting; and bless the ‎name of Your glory and exalt it above all blessing and praise. You are Hashem alone; You ‎made the heavens and the heaven of heavens and all of its hosts, the earth and all that is on it, ‎the seas and all that is in them, and You give life to all of them, and the hosts of heaven bow ‎down to You’ (Nehemiah 9:5-6). ‎
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Analysis ‎
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This sounds like a very fitting close to the Biblical era. It hearkens back to the dedication of ‎the first temple during the glory days of King Solomon. During that celebration Solomon set ‎the bar for these temple dedications, proclaiming: ‘Hashem, the God of Israel, there are no ‎gods like You in the heavens above and the earth below, who keeps the covenant and the ‎kindness to Your servants who walk before You with all their heart…Can it be that Elohim ‎will dwell on the earth? Behold the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain You, ‎much less this house that I built’ (Kings I, 8:23, 27). ‎
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This is indeed about as Biblical a theme as there is. It’s all about God’s greatness and might ‎and expansiveness and all that. This very prayer found in Nehemiah made its way into the ‎daily morning prayers of Jews around the world in exile from the time of the temple’s ‎destruction until today. This is probably the prototype of how Jews see God – great, mighty, ‎awesome, patient, and faithful. The Amidah is really structured around this prototype. It is ‎the bridge between the Biblical and the post-Biblical. ‎
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One has to wonder if all these accolades are really necessary. Does God need this praise and ‎this horn-tooting? Isn’t this all just a big buttering up session to win God over to help the new ‎community get on its feet, or to help Jews out in exile wherever they end up? What’s with all ‎this praise anyway? Is it for God or for us, or for something else entirely? What’s with ‎temples and shrines – if they cannot contain God to begin with, why bother building them? ‎What’s with the heavens and the earth bowing to God? Don’t they have something more ‎important to be doing than bowing? ‎
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Back in ancient times, people probably had major problems conceiving of what is ‘beyond’. ‎The world was as far as one could see, and some distance beyond that, because it seemed to ‎go on indefinitely. The sky went up to some ceiling that contained the sun, the moon, and the ‎stars in some arrangement that only the gods or God could fathom. The waters descended to ‎uncharted depths, but they had to have a bottom somewhere. This compact picture remained ‎largely unchanged until the time of Copernicus and Giordano Bruno in the 16th century. They ‎were the first to expand the borders to include the vastness of space to unimaginable ‎distances. They started a trend that inevitably resulted in the Big Bang and the ever-‎expanding universe. This effectively did two things. It pushed God out beyond the edge of ‎that infinite expansion and it ironically made God bigger than ever. ‎
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This is the irony of making God too great – it pushes God out beyond the realm of human ‎imagination, thus making God inconceivable. This was a great risk for a religion to take. Is it ‎wise to chance losing many adherents due to the inability to perceive an unimaginable God, or ‎is it worth it for the extra greatness one gets out of the bargain? The Jews took the second ‎side of the bet. It was riskier, but they were going for broke. ‎
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Limiting a deity to a given time and place may make that deity perceivable but it also ‎disqualifies that deity from truly being God. It may be an angel or some other spiritual power, ‎but it is not God. Zeus may have been a terrific shot with thunderbolts and Aphrodite might ‎look fantastic coming out of that shell, but that’s all they were. To be God, a deity has to be ‎willing to go all the way. Only the God of the Bible was willing to make this leap. ‎
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This is the theory behind the classic Biblical position on God. Now we have to get to the ‎practical. How does one perceive such a God? It is easy to imagine God creating the heavens ‎and the earth. It is easy to imagine God filling the heavens and the earth. It is even easy to ‎imagine God running the whole show with a flick of His divine finger. But it’s a whole other ‎ball game to imagine God beyond the edge of the universe. What’s beyond the edge of the ‎universe anyway? Nothing, right? Or is it even nothing? Nothing is just more space, but that ‎can’t be what’s beyond the edge of the universe. If that were the case it would just be more ‎space of the universe, or maybe the border of the universe next door. If it’s beyond the edge ‎of the universe and not part of another universe, and not just more empty space, then what is ‎it? This is the problem in a nutshell? ‎
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The answer is contained in the expression ‘heaven of heavens’ that is found in Nehemiah. The ‎heaven of heavens was beyond the regular heavens, whatever that might mean. Maybe there ‎is also a heaven of heaven of heavens. However far you want to take it out, God is bigger ‎than it. How does this help the situation? It tells us that God is greater, bigger, mightier, more ‎awesome, etc. than anything we can possibly imagine. God exists beyond the scope of the ‎human imagination. ‎
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Solomon, in making his dedication speech for the first temple was making this exact point. ‎God cannot be contained in any human conception of the dimensions of reality. How can an ‎earthly temple contain God? It can’t. So why build it? We build it not to ‘contain’ God, but ‎to sense the reality of God in any way we can, even if it just a ‘piece’ of the greater reality. ‎Even the heavens themselves must ‘bow’ to this greater reality. They also are trapped within ‎the limited reality of creation. While the heavens may not be able to sense this in way that a ‎conscious being can, the nature of their reality in comparison to God’s, forces them to bow to ‎a greater reality. ‎
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This image, the image of an impossible-to-conceive greatness of God, is the best that the ‎human mind can do to appreciate the ‘reality gap’ that exists between the dimension of God ‎and the dimension of creation. Perhaps this is why it remained so prevalent in Judaism. It is ‎all we can do to express this gap. It is our attempt to come to terms with a reality that is ‎ultimately beyond our grasp. We call it God and we revere it, even though we cannot ever ‎conceive its true nature. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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To realize that God’s exists on a plane of reality that is utterly beyond that which we exist on ‎is to briefly catch a glimpse of a fundamental truth. We may not fully understand this truth ‎but we sure can revere it. We do have the ability to recognize that our own scope of reality is ‎limited. We can do that by trying to understand the vastness of the universe. But we can go ‎beyond even that by trying to come to grips with the vastness of God. We cannot ever really ‎get it, but we can appreciate it. ‎
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This may be frustrating for some. They may say that a God that is impossible to conceive ‎doesn’t really exist. It is not even a figment of the imagination. It is simply the mind declaring ‎that what it cannot conceive of, is God. This is a valid complaint and it has to be addressed. ‎It was one of the reasons why Judaism never became as popular as pagan religions or ‎Christianity. A limited God who exists on a dimension that we are familiar with is much ‎easier to believe in. Is there a Jewish solution to the ‘conception’ problem? ‎
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It turns out that there is, at least partially. Consider a dream. In the dream there is an entire ‎world filled with whatever it is filled with. There are people in that dream world. Imagine ‎coming to one of them and saying that you, the dreamer, exist outside of that universe - you ‎are bigger than that universe. While this is obviously true from the dreamer’s perspective, it is ‎quite difficult for the person in the dream to accept. But the person in the dream may be able ‎to appreciate that the dreamer is speaking the truth. That person may even be able to gain a ‎glimpse of that truth by ‘stepping out’ of that dream into the world of the dreamer. ‎
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This, to a limited degree, is the Jewish version of God’s reality. It isn’t the most accessible ‎way to perceive a deity, but it certain is free of human limitations. That is its true beauty. To ‎perceive God is to go beyond the human conception. There is no need to remain trapped in ‎that bubble. God is our ticket out. We may not be able to simply step outside of the dream, ‎but we can know that there is a dreamer out there whose existence encompasses the dream-‎bubble. To revere that image is to see reality through an infinitely expanded vision. We do ‎have conceptual limitations, but why allow them to restrict our horizons? ‎
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Reflections ‎
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The theology of Judaism never really caught on among non-Jews. Why did Judaism insist on ‎this inconceivable image when easier images were there for the taking? ‎


		


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