Can We Know God?
Can we know God? Can we understand God’s ways? Can we understand what is happening to us? Can we predict what is going to happen based on what we see and hear?
The Israelites in the desert seemed to know what God wanted for them. A cloud hovered over the Mishkan, which went with them wherever they traveled. When the cloud lifted, they followed it as a sign of what God wants them to do. God was clearly with the Israelites, letting them know that throughout their journey in the wilderness.
Countless divine mysteries were woven into every fiber of the Mishkan, even before it was completed. Divine mysteries unfold in our own lives too, whether significant or minor, before our lives are completed, as well. We can learn from the elaboration of the details of the building of the Mishkan. And in the same way, we can learn from how our own lives evolve. But can we really know God and what he wants for us individually at a given moment in time? Can we know how He works by seeing what occurs?
It was during the days when I was looking at the writings of other religions, before I had ever held a Chumash in my hands or scanned my eyes on the deep Torah. I read in their book: “If you believe, then you will receive.” The stress was on the believing rather than on the doing. There was really nothing else to do in those writings more important than believing. I took it at its word. I wanted to believe that believing was all I had to do. I hoped that was the answer. I had been in excruciating pain in my jaw and head from childhood injuries that I had received. They kept me awake most of the night and did not allow me to open my jaw wide enough for anything more than a straw. To assure my own cure, I told people in a 12-step meeting that since I declare that I believe God will heal me, then he will have to be true to His word. Actually, in my mind, I was manipulating God to cure me. But it did not happen. I remained in pain despite the many solutions I had sought through the years and even though it is much better, I am still dealing with the same issue.
Even though God was a part of every moment of my life, I did not really know Him. I knew only parts, the parts that helped me through every situation, the parts that helped me to overcome myself and the parts that seemed to respond to my every prayer. But could I have known what God will do? Could I have figured Him out? I did not understand how God works. And I didn’t know that I could not understand.
We, in Teaneck, NJ, just got hit badly by the storm that blasted our town on Shabbos, March 13th. Sunday morning, it was still coming down. I walked outside the house to see trees uprooted with the cement in which they used to stand, all leaning against and being supported by the damaged houses they had fallen upon. My next-door neighbor’s backyard was totally engulfed by a huge evergreen that belonged to another neighbor. The huge greenery covered his whole yard and some of mine. Branches from the berry trees in my backyard were strewn on my deck. I had not even known that the high trees were already sprouting berries until I saw the bright red berries all over the branches cut down by the storm.
Hours later, I found my dinosaur-age phone (a landline) and connected it. With the anxiety I had experienced during the storm, I was so pleased to be able to speak with a friend and convey what was happening here. She shared with me that “wind” means “teshuva” and “rain” means something else and she wanted to continue telling me what God’s message was in each piece of this weather. I asked her how she knows that and she told me a certain rabbi taught it.
Can we know the meaning of everything that God does? Is God telling us what to do every moment even in the weather? Can we know God in His entirety?
Can rabbis have more prophecy than Moshe Rabbeinu did? Can even a prophet have clearer vision than the humble Moshe Rabbeinu? Yevamot 49b in the Gomorrah tells us that all the prophets looked through a dim glass and that only Moshe Rabbeinu looked through a glass that was clear when he spoke with God. The Gomorrah is telling us that no one has ever before or ever will have clearer vision of God’s ways than Moshe Rabbeinu. Accordingly, that must mean that God explained all of His ways to Moshe. No? Let’s see…
Shemos: 33: 18 tells us that when Moshe asked Hshem: "Show me, now, Your glory!"
Hashem answered (Shemos33: 19): "I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will call out with the name Hashem before you, and I will show favor when I choose to show favor and I will show mercy when I choose to show mercy.”
God was telling Moshe that He will not explain His ways. He will favor when He chooses to favor and He will show mercy when He chooses to show mercy. Yet, He will not explain it further than that. He does not tell Moshe that it will make sense to him or to anyone else. God explains that He will do what He will do.
I have heard people in passing say “This is why God does such and such.” and “This is what He will do because He did such and such.” If Moshe Rabbeinu was told that he can’t know why God does what he does, how can we know, how can any rabbi know? How can a Kabbalist, an astrologer, a psychic or any of those people that some of us implore to “tell” us know?
I have heard so many people disappointed and disillusioned after going to a Kabbalist, an astrologer and others because these people don’t really know. How inadequate those predictions can be. How upsetting it can be to listen to someone who cannot see your own goodness tell you what you should do. They can’t really know God’s ways. God said so, to Moshe Rabbeinu. How comforted I am in knowing now that I cannot expect to understand.
Things happen. Two people in Teaneck, each a father of many children and each a light to the community, died as a result of a falling tree during the storm. I cried when I heard. But I can’t know why. I can trust that there is a reason. I trust 100% that somewhere, someplace, in some sphere of knowledge this all makes sense. But I also know that we can’t understand it. Hashem said so. He told Moshe, our teacher.
Even a rabbi as great as Rabbi Akiva was mistaken about what God was about to do. He was convinced that Bar Kochba was Moshiach. Rabbi Akiva was the greatest rabbi of his generation, the Godol HaDor. He knew more than anyone. Yet, he could not recognize if someone was the real messiah. He was taken. Rabbi Akiva also could not understand why 24,000 students of his, all but five, died of a plague. We can conjecture. I certainly have about why. But really, while I may try to figure this out for myself, I am so clear that I can’t, and am really clear that I will never while on this earth, understand why my Creator does what He does.
We cannot know The Almighty in His entirety. We cannot “see” Him. We cannot understand Him. Yet we can cling to him. We can experience parts of God as we are progressing forward, as we are growing in our connection, and growing in our knowledge, and in our personal growth. And even though it’s never enough, really, that is enough.
That I cannot understand God’s ways does not mean that I can’t get help. It does not mean that I am not heard by Him. On the contrary, God understands me perfectly. When I pray, I am accessing a tiny part of the Ribbono Shel Olam. Even though we can’t really know God, we can still know a small piece of Him and of His ways. But He knows us and really, that is all we need. That is all we need to have the best life possible.
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