Prelude to Sinai: There is Nothing Else
What is God?
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The most remarkable difference between Deuteronomy and the rest of the Torah is found in the Ten Commandments. As mentioned in the introduction to Deuteronomy, the actual text of the covenant differs in a few places. This alone should raise eyebrows about the nature of Deuteronomy. But there is another discrepancy, though not as glaring, that is every bit as significant. The buildup to the giving of the covenant is completely different in the account in Deuteronomy. In Exodus we have the familiar scenario of Moshe going up and down the mountain, warning the people about coming too close, priming them on what is going to happen, and receiving instructions from Hashem. In Deuteronomy the emphasis is on the unique nature of the event. Moshe does not merely retell what happened. He puts a spin on the fact that what they saw was a once-in-all-history moment of destiny.
The reason for this difference is because Deuteronomy was written with a different purpose. It wasn’t written to tell what happened, important as that may be. The details of those momentous events are contained in Exodus and Numbers. Deuteronomy was written to drive home the dual message of why the Israelites should remain true to their faith and what are the pitfalls that they will be facing.
‘Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire, you heard a sound of words, but you saw no image, only a voice’. ‘Be exceedingly careful with yourselves, for you did not see any image on the day that Hashem spoke to you at Horev (Sinai) from the midst of the fire. ’ (4:12,15).
This theme continues in the next paragraph: ‘If you inquire from the first days in the past, from the day that Elohim created man on the earth, from one end of the heavens until the other, was there ever anything as great as this or was anything ever heard like it? Has a people ever heard the voice of Elohim speak from the fire as you heard and lived? Or has Elohim ever miraculously come to take one nation from the midst of another nation with miracles, signs, wonders, war, and a strong hand and an outstretched arm and awesome greatness, like all that Hashem your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? You have been shown in order to know that Hashem is Elohim – there is none other besides Him’ (4:32-35).
The concluding statement of all this is timeless: ‘You must know today, and you must restore it on your heart that Hashem is Elohim in the heavens above and on the earth below – there is no other’ (v.39). It is hard to imagine a more direct speech zeroing in on this core concept – the uniqueness of the Exodus experience and the absolute uniqueness of God.
The Torah is loaded with prohibitions against idolatry. It is the most frequently stated prohibition. It has to be asked why this was such a big deal. Why is idolatry (avoda zara – strange worship) the number one sin in the Bible? Why does it have to be repeated so many times? Furthermore, what is the connection between the dangers of idolatry and the uniqueness of God? These two phrases, ‘There is none other besides Him’, and ‘there is no other’ both stress this uniqueness. Are they saying the same thing or is there a subtle nuance of difference? What is the real meaning of the uniqueness of God?
Moshe was not the voice of Hashem booming from heaven on top of a trembling mountain amidst a blinding fire. Moshe was a human being, no more powerful than any of the Israelites. He knew that the effect of the Sinai experience would wear off in time. It had to. He knew that the children of those people who witnessed the whole thing would only be hearing it second hand or third hand or simply by tradition. It would all become watered down with exaggeration and doubt. Sure they still had the Mishkan and the Ark, but these objects would be fixed in one place and only seen by a few people. Doubts would creep in about those things also.
This was what Moshe knew the Israelites would be up against. He had only this long speech to bolster their willpower forever. He knew that he was fighting an impossible battle, as other verses right around where we are and verses at the end of Deuteronomy clearly state. But he had to do what he could. He stressed the Sinai experience, the absolute uniqueness of it. He stressed that in spite of all the hoopla that surrounded the giving of the covenant - ‘you saw no image’. This fact alone was radical. How could such a spectacular display have taken place with no deity visible? How could there only have been a voice? The lack of a visible image points to only one possible conclusion – the deity that they experienced was not any old god. This was a God who had no need for physical images, a God who was above all that. Physical images are a limitation, not an advantage. They may make the deity more accessible, but the price of limiting that deity to a confined space is too great to pay when dealing with the destiny of creation and the personal conscience of human beings.
Moshe then goes on with stressing the unique relationship that the Israelites have with God. Such a thing had never happened before - hearing the voice of God and living to tell about it, divine intervention into the social and political landscape of the world – these are events that happened only once in this dramatic fashion. Never again would they occur as openly and as indisputably. They also point to only one possible conclusion – this God is not like any other god.
‘You have been shown in order to know that Hashem is Elohim – there in none other besides Him.’ This was the core challenge of Deuteronomy – to realize that the Guide of destiny is the personal God of the individual. When this unification is made, it follows that ‘there is none other besides Him’. When a person realizes that the natural forces that guide the world along it's destined path, and the inner sense of purpose and worth, all emanate from the same Source, that person understands that there is no need for any other deity, great or small, good or evil. Hashem is Elohim. What guides me inside is what guides the world outside. They are one and the same.
This idea, as revolutionary as it was, was only a transitional stage in the understanding of God. That there were no other gods was radical at a time when gods were as common as the different forces that every person had to contend with. Eventually it became a universal idea, adopted by people who had no connection with the Jews and little knowledge of the Bible. But the idea had a more advanced stage that was also hinted to in the Torah, even though it may not have been understood until much later. This idea is contained in the final verse quoted above: ‘You must know today, and you must restore it on your heart that Hashem is Elohim in the heavens above and on the earth below – there is no other’. It sounds pretty much like the earlier verse. The ‘Hashem is Elohim’ phrase is right there in the middle of it all. ‘There is no other’ is almost a carbon copy of ‘there is none other besides Him’. So what’s different about this second verse?
It turns out that there are two very subtle differences between the two verses. The second verse contains the phrase ‘you must restore it in your heart’, which is absent from the first verse. This unique phrase means that you have to know this idea ‘today’, and keep on working it out, never really coasting with it, but always pondering it and bringing it back into question until some deeper understanding is found. Always look for new ways of approaching this fundamental idea.
The second difference is in the final phrase. The first verse states ‘there is none besides Him’. The second states ‘there is no other’. They sound identical. But the Hebrew of the second verse is a very short two word phrase 'ein od'. It means there is no other, but it could also mean ‘there is nothing else’. In other words, this simple phrase contains the seed of a mind-boggling idea – there is nothing else other than God. Forget about other gods, they are easy to dismiss. This goes light years beyond that. There is nothing else other than Hashem. Nothing. All that other stuff out there certainly looks real and as far as we can tell it is real. But it is only real because God is real. There is nothing else, above or below, wherever you look it is all just another disguise for God. We’ve seen hints of this amazing idea but never saw it in print. Here it is in these two simple words. There is nothing else.
To know God this way is to know that God is everything and that everything is nothing. This is the end, once and for all, of the ego. All those struggles with the self, all those cravings for personal desires, all the distractions of the world, must give way to this two word image. There is nothing else, ein od.
Perceiving the Image
The big theological question today, for those who are concerned with theological questions, is whether God exists at all. We have become so successful in our quest for understanding and control of the world, that we have pushed God almost entirely out of the picture. Does the Torah have an answer to this challenge or does it only deal with the old and antiquated challenge of idolatry? If one reads the Torah with an open mind, one finds that the modern challenge is also addressed. ‘There is nothing else’. Call it the ‘all’ existence; call it nothingness; call it the Creator; call it the creation. It’s all the same. This is the ultimate image of God. In fact it is so ultimate that it is not an image at all. It is all there is.
How does one access this image/totality? The best way to approach this is probably by following the suggestion of Moshe in Deuteronomy: ‘restore it on your heart’. This means some combination of contemplation, meditation, and spiritual insight. It must be approached again and again, pondered and experienced, questioned and accepted. Old givens must be discarded. Cherished notions of the old God sitting on His throne in the heavens might become an obstacle. The security of one’s own independent being might get in the way. But these will only be temporary sacrifices, as this image cannot be maintained permanently. It is an image that can only be grasped in flashes of insight that may leave their residue deep in the conscience.
There is a simple method to experience these brief flashes. It is so simple that it usually doesn’t really work but it’s worth trying anyway. It is simply repeating the mantra of ‘ein od’ in deep contemplation. The image can actually be experienced this way, though it is a bit of a long shot. If all else fails, this is a modern version of ‘restore it on your heart’. It is simply a matter of returning to the heart those two simple words, ein od.
Some ideas are so radical that they just can never make major headway in the world of ideas. This is probably one of them. But it is worth experiencing at least once in lifetime. There is nothing else.
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