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Shelach Lecha: When God is not God. June 29, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg


יא וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה עַד-אָנָה יְנַאֲצֻנִי הָעָם הַזֶּה וְעַד-אָנָה לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ בִי בְּכֹל הָאֹתוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ .יב אַכֶּנּוּ בַדֶּבֶר וְאוֹרִשֶׁנּוּ וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אֹתְךָ לְגוֹי-גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ.

 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” [Numbers 14:11-12]



There is a secret in this week's Torah portion. At first, it's shocking but in the end, I think you'll conclude that you already knew it. There is a character in this week's Torah portion called Y-H-V-H who tells Moshe that he wants to kill the Israelites (Bemidbar 14:12): "I will hit them with a plague and eliminate them and make a bigger, greater nation from you!" The secret, revealed by the Zohar, is that this character is not God.


But before we get into the secret, a clarification: For the Zohar, everything is God. The aspect of God that the Zohar calls Ein Sof, Infinity, contains all things. So not only the character Y-H-V-H who wants to kill the Jews is part of God, so are the spies, the grapes they brought back, and if a spy stubbed his toe on a rock on the way home, as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero says (quoted in Daniel Matt's The Essential Kabbalah), "Don't say 'this is a rock and not God' - God forbid! - Rather, all existence is God." But if everything is God, how can the character in question not be God?


The answer is that when we as Jews today use the word "God", we don't generally mean the Ein Sof of the Zohar but rather something more in the spirit of Maimonides like "the One we love and imitate". For the Zohar, too, we are meant to love and imitate God. But the Zohar uses different names to capture different aspects of God, and what we are supposed to love and imitate is not called Ein Sof but is symbolized by attributes (also called sefirot) like Wisdom, Love, and Justice. The character "God" who wants to kill us is part of Ein Sof like all things, but he is something broken; not to be worshipped or imitated. He is not the true God of Wisdom, Love, and Justice.

The Zohar (III 144a IR) reveals this secret in its commentary to Bereishit 6. This chapter tells the story of how God (the character) became sad, regretted creating human beings and so killed them all except Noah and family. The Zohar explains that this cannot be the transcendent God because then it would be inappropriate to speak of God experiencing sadness and regret. The character "God" who destroys humanity is symbolized not by Wisdom, Love, and Justice but by Rage, Pain, and Destruction. This is not "the One we love and imitate."


The Zohar further explains that this (not-) "God" of Rage, Pain, and Destruction is responsible not only for the flood but also for the ongoing desire to kill the Israelites. The point of these stories, in which "God" is not really God, is to teach us the dynamics of Rage, Pain, and Destruction in heaven and on earth. Moshe is the ultimate servant of the true God who knows how to awaken the divine attributes of Wisdom, Love, and Justice by evoking the thirteen attributes of mercy (Shemot 34:9; Bemidbar 14:17-18). We are meant to learn to do the same.


So, the secret is that "God" in the Chumash is not always God. But you already knew that. Anyone who reads the simple meaning of the story understands that Moshe was not supposed to say, "Hey God, great idea, let's kill all the Israelites except me." Moshe was supposed to resist "God" and the reader is meant to identify with him. Think about it for a minute and you'll see that the Zohar is just stating the simple meaning of the text using more complex mystical-philosophical-psychological symbolism. The message is the same.


And it's a radical message. Each time the Bible says that God did X or said Y, you need to ask yourself: the character "God" or God "the One we love and imitate"? For instance, would the God in which you believe command that we exterminate the seven nations that lived in Eretz Yisrael (Devarim 20:16)? By revealing this secret to you, Jewish tradition has entrusted you with a powerful interpretive tool. You and I are the living link in thousands of years of Jewish interpretation. May it be God's will that we use this tool wisely.

[Torah Sparks: USCJ Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem: Parshat Shelach Lecha; Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty: June 29, 2019]

Think About It:


Is Dr. Rothberg denying God or is this just another aspect of Divinity? Who gets to decide when the Torah speaks of God and when it does not?

Why does the Torah teach us about a God of Rage, Pain and Destruction? Why not just focus on “The Good God”?

What gift does this interpretation give us to help us study Torah better? What responsibility does it place on our shoulders?





“You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God” (Isaiah43:12) That is, when you are my witnesses, I am God, and when you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God. [Midrash Psalms on Psalm 123]


Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said: “When the Israelites do God’s will, God’s name is exalted in the world; when they do not do God’s will, God’s name is, as it were, profaned in the world, even as it says “And they profaned my holy name (Ezekiel 36:20 ) [Mechilta; Shirata, Beshallach, Section 3]



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, June 29, 2019.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780