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Shelach Lecha 5783            June 17, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

In the 2009 Movie, Avatar, the Na’vi people greet each other with the formal greeting, “I see you.” In a world where everything is connected to everything else, individualism is impossible. So, the highest compliment one can make to another is “I see you,” You, and not a collective; I see you as unique and as an individual. It is the sign that one has joined the tribe when they look at each other and say, “I see you.”

In the book of Genesis, Hagar, the servant to our matriarch Sarah, flees mistreatment into the wilderness. There she almost dies, but God saves her and lets her know that she will bear Abraham’s first child so she should go back and face Sarah. The good news outweighs the bad news; so, she exclaims to God, “You are the God who sees me.”

The poet, Brian Aji, writes a poem called, “I See You”:

When we look, we use our eyes,
When we see, we use our hearts.
I see you.
I see you and become blind to all else.
When I look at you smile, I see love.
When I look in your eyes, I see truth.

I've looked at beautiful things, beautiful faces,
But I see yours.
I don't have to look, to see you.
I see you right now, though my eyes are resting.
I'd seen you before we first met, and I knew you.
Because you're the one I longed for.
In my heart, I knew you,
But now, I've found you.
And I won't lose you. I love you. I see you

The focus of all of this is the word “see” but I want to focus on a different word, the word, “you.” Our eyes take in all kinds of images. But there is only one “you.” What makes the seeing special is the object of the search.

In our parsha, spies are sent to see the land. They see the beauty and bounty of the land, but they also see the dangers and the obstacles that will prevent the people from entering the land. Ten of the spies spread exaggerated tales of the giants who live in the land and the cities fortified by walls that are thousands of feet high. The people become afraid and wish to turn back to Egypt and give up all their dreams of a promised land. They cry all night for their broken dreams until God, in anger, announces that if they cry all night for no reason, I will give them a reason to cry.

That night was the ninth of Av; to this day it is our national day of mourning.

God is prepared to wipe out the people, to start the people over again with Moses and his children. God is livid that the people, after seeing all the miracles that got them out of Egyptian slavery, the plagues, the parting of the sea, the defeat of the Amalekites, the water, the manna, the giving of the law at Sinai, and they despair that God can’t get them into the promised land? God is convinced that these whiney people have got to go.

Moses steps into the breach, “The other nations have heard that YOU O Lord are in the midst of the people, that YOU O Lord appear in plain sight when your cloud rests over them and YOU go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. What will the other nations say when you destroy these people?”

To our ears, it may seem reasonable that Moses addresses God in such an informal way. Moses the human is addressing the Ruler of the Universe. In this incident, it would not be unnatural to assume that a more formal approach might be better. Joseph, in speaking to Pharoah, always addresses the ruler in the third person. It is a sign of humility. But Moses dares to address God informally, as one might address a friend. Moses did this after the incident of the Golden Calf and he does it here again. Moses is not formal with God; Moses is intimate with God, as if Moses is advising God against acting in anger and creating more trouble than it is worth. Since when does God need advice from human beings? And yet, here stands Moses telling God to reconsider what God is about to do and using the intimate address; “you.”

Moses and Hagar may be the only people in the Bible who address God as “you,” but in our world today we all use this informal voice with God. We don’t say, “Blessed is the God of Israel” nor do we say, “Blessed is God,” we recite our blessings with the formula, “Baruch ATA H’ “Blessed are YOU, Lord our God.”

There is an argument in the Talmud whether it is appropriate to address God this way. Several important Sages discuss the matter as only the Talmud can. Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:3; 12d Rav said: One needs to say “You” [in the blessing formula] But Shmuel said: One does not need to say “You.” The commentators to this passage conclude: Arugat Ha-Bosem, ed. Urbach, vol. 1, p. 127
“Therefore it was established (to say) in blessings: “Blessed are You,” as if one is speaking mouth to mouth with the listener.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, of Yeshivat Hadar adds his comment, When we speak to God in prayer, we are indicating our closeness to God. It is as if we are standing face to face, and connecting directly.8 In my own prayer life, when I say the word אתה, I feel privileged that our prayers are orienting me to a direct address of God.  The word “You” feels intimate to me, and I even linger on the word sometimes, concentrating on the experience of reaching out directly to God. … The choice to say the word “You” in our blessing formula was meant to emphasize the necessity of connecting directly to God. Hagar innovates this approach in her naming of God, and Moshe extends it in his heightened use of the direct address when praying for the Israelites. We follow both of their examples when we recite אתה in our prayers. Like Hagar, in our vulnerable moments, we call out to God directly, indicating that God sees us in our distress. And like Moshe, in our moments of asking for forgiveness, we speak intimately to God, attempting to draw closer following sin. Calling God “You,” right as we start our prayer, orients us toward a deeper connection, without barriers.”

The question for us is how do we address God when we want/need to address God? Do we even think about the way we address the Master of All Creation? On the one hand, we owe all that we are and all that we have to God, and one would think that we would address God formally and respectfully. On the other hand, God, as our creator, is our eternal parent. Would we address our parents formally or would we address them in a familiar way? (There is a pun hiding in there).

I know that sometimes we wonder what we might say if we had a chance to speak to someone we admire for their fame and/or fortune. What might we say to the author of books we admire, or a painter of artwork we appreciate? We might be so tongue tied that we may despair of saying anything rational at all. If we had a few minutes to speak to the King of England or l’havdil, a celebrity, would we be able to speak personally, or would we flounder for words? The difficulty is in how we see them. Do we see them as their work, or do we see them as a person? Do we see their fame, or do we see them as human beings? Do we see them with our eyes, or do we see them with our hearts?

As we sit here in the synagogue and pray, this is one of the many considerations that we encounter. Do we have any right to ask God for anything? Is it important to offer praise to God who certainly knows God’s high status? Are we addressing a ruler who sits on a throne in Heaven above or are we addressing the God who dwells inside our souls?

When we enter the synagogue, we have many thoughts going through our heads. We carry many concerns, and we worry about our own health, our family, our community, and our world. It may seem like a small concern to consider how we will speak to God when what we wish to say takes up so much room in our head. But how we address God can make all the difference in how we pray. Our sages teach us that God is not some far away, aloof ruler we need to appeal to. God is here, inside of us. God is looking for us as much as we are seeking God. When we meet, we meet as friends and yes, we meet as lovers. We don’t go out to meet The Master of the World, we are here to meet and bless You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe.


Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichiv, the famous Hasidic Master wrote his own poem about how he addresses God:


Where I go: You!

Where I stand: You!

Just You. Again You. Always You!

You! You! You!

When it goes well with me: You!

When it goes wrong with me: You!

Just You. Again You. Always You!

You! You! You!

Heaven: You!

Earth: You!

Up: You!

Down: You!

Where I turn at every end: You!

Just You. Again You. Always You!

You! You! You!

You, God, have been a good God to our ancestors in every generation, we hope and pray that YOU will be here for us today and tomorrow. We hope that we can see YOU and that YOU can see us so that together we can make this world worthy of redemption.

Blessed are YOU, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this moment. May YOU see us with your wisdom and may we see YOU with our hearts. As we say …... Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784