My three-year-old son was watching me pray one day, trying to imitate my movements, pretending he was also praying. Then out of the blue, he blurted out, "Daddy! I just saw God's feet."
I didn't know what my immediate response should be to this, but quickly I decided that truth was my best option. "Yehuda," I said, "You couldn't have seen God's feet. God doesn't have feet."
He seemed startled by that, but all he said was "Oh."
A couple of minutes went by, then he tugged at my sleeve. He looked at me with his big brown eyes and, smiling sweetly, said with total conviction, "But I saw them."
There was nothing I could do to persuade him otherwise. So I decided to let it ride. After all, he is only three-years-old. Hopefully, by the time he reaches adulthood he will have learned that God doesn't have feet. If he still harbors that concept, it will get in the way of his truly seeing God.
People today truly want to meet God. They are looking less for an understanding of God than for an introduction to God. They want a personal audience. They want to see God. And surprising as it may sound, it is possible. God can be seen and wants to be seen.
But the sad fact is that most people don't see God, can't see God, even when they want to, because in childhood they picked up concepts which in adulthood act as spiritual blindfolds.
So instead of describing how God can be seen, we will address why we can't see him. Hopefully, in so doing, we will unmask and remove the major obstacles that stand in our way.
The first step in what I call the art of spiritual seeing is to discard our spiritual blindfolds.
Most of the people I have met during my years as a rabbi are wearing spiritual blindfolds. This causes them a lot of suffering, because these blindfolds block the eyes of the soul and they are never free to see God.
Some people are aware of that they are walking blindly through life, but most are not. And that's a lot worse because if you don't know what's hurting you, it's harder to heal.
CHILDISH VIEW OF GOD
Most of us retain some sort of image of God from our childhood, possibly recalling when the idea of God first registered on our juvenile consciousness. Many children are influenced by the world that so loves to picture God as Zeus (even though theoretically paganism disappeared from Western civilization along with the Roman Empire). The Michaelangelo version from the Sistine Chapel is possibly the most widely reproduced rendition of the Creator looking every bit like old Zeus himself.
It is no wonder that so many children (and sadly, adults too) imagine God as a powerful aged man with a flowing long white beard. Children need to give God a physical form in their minds, otherwise they cannot comprehend the idea -- for them an invisible, incorporeal God is simply not there.
In a child's mind, according to his level of comprehension, God has to have a body, an imaginable form of some kind, to exist. But as the child grows up, as he matures intellectually and spiritually, he needs to find a new paradigm -- a new framework for understanding God, for seeing God.
The problem is that most of us don't. This is, in fact, a very common problem.
Humanity has been struggling with this problem since the dawn of civilization. This was the genius and earthshaking contribution of Abraham. Four thousand years ago, he told a world, which worshipped a panoply of idols representing every imaginable aspect of nature, that there is only one unimaginable source of all creation. Can you imagine what a shock it must have been to hear that back then? God is imageless? How could that be?
The irony of it was that Abraham's father, Terach, was an idol-maker by profession. Jewish oral tradition tells us that as a child Abraham smashed all the idols in his father's shop. Responding to his father's fury, he boldly claimed that the biggest of the idols was responsible for the destruction. "But," countered his father, "he is just a statue; he can't do anything." And to that Abraham said simply, "Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken."
God who is responsible for the vastness and intricacy of creation cannot be limited to any form, and especially not to an inanimate graven image. A mature and healthy soul must deny such childish imaginings.
As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, great Kabbalist and philosopher living at the turn of the century, put it, "There is faith that is actually denial, and there is denial that is actually faith." When a person says that he believes in God, but, in fact, the God he believes in is really a conceptual spiritual idol, an image of God that he has conjured up, then his faith is actually denial of truth, heresy.
However, when a person professes atheism because he just can't believe in some almighty king with a white flowing beard floating somewhere in outer space, in a sense he is expressing true faith, because there is no such God.
The challenge is how to clean out such false imagery from one's mind -- imagery that has grown thick, hard and solid over time and, like a hard wall of cement blocks, is now presenting a very serious obstruction to really seeing God.
The place to start is with the big word: G-O-D.
WHO IS "GOD"?
Today people talk a great deal about God. It is fashionable to bring up spiritual matters at cocktail parties. It's even fashionable to believe in God.
Not too long ago, it was not fashionable to believe in God. In fact, it was decidedly politically incorrect. Intelligent people simply didn't believe in God, faith was considered something primitive, passť, decidedly not academic.
But what concerns me about this trendiness of God is that trends come and go. Two hundred years ago God was fashionable -- the Founding Fathers of America put God in the Declaration of Independence and "In God We Trust" on all American money.
Fifty years ago, God was not fashionable -- the founders of the State of Israel, after much argument, only cryptically referred to God as "Rock of Israel" when they wrote their Declaration of Independence. Now God is fashionable again.
To make sure that God isn't just fashionable, and will not fall out of fashion next year along with platform shoes, we have to take great care. To make sure that God really becomes part of our lives and has a profound and healthy effect in improving the way we live and relate to each other, we have to pay attention to what we mean when we say "God."
GETTING RID OF "GOD"
Quite frankly, the word "God" does nothing for me. If anything, it interferes with my true faith. Personally, I don't believe in "God." It's an English word of German derivation and is not found in the Bible, if you read the Hebrew original. That word "God" has been so overused, abused, and misunderstood that it actually stands in the way of our discovering that ultimate truth we are seeking.
Thinking about this problem, I begin to understand what Nietzsche must have meant when he said God is dead. The concept of "God" -- what we mean when we say "God" -- is a dead concept. It is not real. The male, Zeus-like avenger floating about in heaven doesn't even come close to representing the reality.
How childish and counter-productive this concept is was brought home to me, when one day, I saw a fellow wearing a tee-shirt depicting an exchange from the Calvin and Hobbs comic strip. Hobbs, the toy tiger, is asking Calvin, the little boy, "Calvin, do you believe in God?" Calvin's reply is: "Well, SOMEONE is out to get me."
Unfortunately, many people harbor an image of God as some kind of Almighty heavenly bully, who is out to get them. No wonder they don't want to believe in that God; no wonder they don't have any idea how to connect with that God.
Indeed, that is an awful image of "God." So, I believe that before real spiritual growth is possible we must get rid of God.
Just like Abraham we need to smash our own graven images, free ourselves from conceptual idolatry obstructing the eyes of our soul. The time has come to see the One who we seek.
THE ONE WHOM WE SEEK
The name in the Bible that unfortunately has been translated as "God" is comprised of the Hebrew letters yud, hey, vav, hey and is written out in English as "Y/H/V/H." It is important to know that "Y/H/V/H" is not a word at all, but a tetragrammaton -- the Tetragrammaton as there is only one -- standing for "was/is/and/will be." The Tetragrammaton condenses the three Hebrew forms of the verb "to be" suggesting the timeless source and context of all being.
Jewish law prohibits the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, and therefore in prayer religious Jews substitute a completely different word -- Adonai (meaning "Lord") -- when they come to "Y/H/V/H."
How very strange to see a word and say something else. Of course, this is done to remind the worshipper that what he/she sees cannot be said, what he/she experiences cannot really be captured in words or concepts. The sages of old, in their vast wisdom, understood that people love the crutch of images and therefore need constant reminders to humbly accept the limitations of their conceptual minds. How can a human mind grasp Y/H/V/H? How can the human mind imagine the Ultimate Timeless Reality?
This is a very difficult idea to grasp because it surpasses our minds. It's like a drop of water in the ocean, trying to grasp the ocean. Indeed, the best we can say is that we each embody an aspect of reality, but we are not reality. Like the drop water in the ocean, we exist within reality. Because reality is Y/H/V/H.
When Jews celebrate Passover, they sing a song from the Haggadah: "Blessed is The Place." One of the terms used to describe Y/H/V/H is "The Place." Why "The Place"? Because it suggests Y/H/V/H is the place in which we exist, is the reality within which we exist.
If you believe in the Big Bang theory -- that the world came into being as a primordial explosion with masses of hot, whirling gases, which eventually condensed into stars and planets -- you would still have to ask: Where did all this happen? What place was this in which the explosion took place? Who facilitated this event?
The answer is Y/H/V/H, the Ultimate Reality -- the One who embraces all time, all space and all beings.
THE ULTIMATE REALITY
The Kabbalah warns that we should not to affix any name or letter to the Ultimate Reality. (The Kabbalah refers to the Ultimate Reality as Ein Sof, "the Endless One.") We can't stuff something as vast and abstract as that into any rigid concept or image. Even the Tetragrammaton is, at best, only a hint, because the One to whom it refers is beyond names and concepts.
So what are we to do when trying to speak of Y/H/V/H without getting stuck in the dead concept that we are trying to get rid of? The Jewish answer is to avoid the problem by simply saying Hashem, which in Hebrew simply means "the name." This avoids becoming too familiar with any name, indeed it avoids using any name. Saying "the name" -- Hashem -- reminds us that the Ultimate Reality is, in fact, beyond all names, all terms, all images. When we say Hashem, we realize that we only possess a simplistic, limited, inadequate understanding of the Ultimate Reality, the Source of All Being, the Place or the Context of All That Exists.
We don't -- indeed, we can't -- have an understanding of Hashem, but we can and do have a relationship with Hashem.
God is dead; it is a lifeless concept, a dead word. But Hashem is alive, the Ultimate Living Reality.
The Kabbalah inspires a complete paradigm shift. It teaches that Hashem does not exist in reality -- Hashem is reality. And we do not exist alongside Hashem, we exist within Hashem, within the reality that is Hashem.
Hashem is the place. Indeed, Hashem is the all-embracing context for everything. So there can't be you and God standing alongside in reality. There is only one reality that is Hashem, and you exist in Hashem.
You exist within reality, embody an aspect of reality, participate in reality. That's a completely different understanding.
When I talk about reality, sometimes people object. They complain that "reality" sounds too impersonal. "What happened to the personal God?" they ask.
But the Ultimate Reality, Hashem, Y/H/V/H, is not impersonal. This reality embraces you and me and is the source of and context for you and me, therefore, Hashem couldn't be any less personal than you and me. In fact, Hashem is infinitely more personal.
People think that reality is dead empty space, but reality is actually conscious, alive, and loving. Therefore, we cannot speak of reality in an impersonal way. We can't ask, for example, "What is reality?" We must ask, "Who is reality? Who is the source of all consciousness? Who is the source of all life? Who is the source of love? Who accommodates everything we see in this world?"
The answer is Hashem.
One metaphor that can be helpful for understanding our relationship to Hashem is the relationship between the thought and the thinker. If I create a man in my mind, where does that man exist? In my mind. That man exists within me, yet I'm not that man. That man is not me. He continues to exist as long as I continue to think him. If I stop thinking about him, he ceases to exist but I am no less who I was before I created him in my imagination.
Similarly, we are the product of Hashem's creation. We exist in Hashem. But we are not Hashem and Hashem is not us. It's a mystical idea. There is nothing devoid of Hashem. Everything is in Hashem, Hashem is in everything, but Hashem is beyond everything.
We exist within reality, we embody reality, and yet we are not reality. And if we would cease to exist, reality would continue on, no less than before or after our creation.
A MATURE VIEW
When I tried to explain this to my seven-year-old son, it went like this:
"Nuri, where is Hashem?"
"He's over there," he answered confidently pointing to the sky. "In heaven."
"No. Hashem isn't over there, Hashem is everywhere."
"Now, where are you and I?"
"Well," he was more cautious now, expecting something tricky within the question. "We're over here."
"No," I said, "You and I are actually within Hashem. Do you understand that? Hashem isn't over there, and you and I are not over here. Hashem is everywhere and we're in Hashem."
My son thought about this for a few moments, trying to understand it. Then he exclaimed, "I got it! I got it! Wow! Hashem is so fat!"
Somehow he had to make a picture of Hashem, fat enough to encompass two other people, because a child's mind cannot deal in abstractions. That's why if a third grader is having trouble figuring out how much is 14 minus 9, you tell him, "If you have fourteen candies, and you give away nine to your sister, how many candies will you have left?" He'll get it right away. He'll see the candies disappearing in his mind.
But as he matures, he is expected to let go of childish, limited concrete concepts. He can't be thinking of candy each time he adds or subtracts, nor can he be thinking of a fat balloon each time he thinks of God.
If we want an adult relationship with Hashem, then we must be willing to change the paradigm. Letting go of old concepts, however, is extremely difficult. The human mind can be like a prison. To get out of the prison of our imagination is sometimes more difficult than getting out of a prison made of stones and bars. If we become prisoners to the unhealthy concept God, then we view all of life through a framework of God vs. me. And no wonder that religion turns us off.
When we read that an omnipotent being over there gave us this or that commandment, we say in our childish minds, "Oh yeah? So what?" It becomes a question of who is going to win. Are we going to surrender to that being over there?
But, if we can make the jump from counting candies to the abstractions of algebra, we can also succeed in freeing our minds from unhealthy stilted images of God.
Only when we remove from our mind's eye those blindfolds of dead concepts can we begin to open the eyes of the soul and see in a new way. But once we do, we also become open up the possibility of truly seeing Hashem.
This article has been adapted
from the newest book by Rabbi David Aaron, "Seeing God: Ten Life-changing
Lessons of the Kabbalah," recently published by Tarcher/Putnam. To purchase this
Rabbi David Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization with centers in Jerusalem, New York, and Florida. He is also the author of "Endless Light: The Ancient Path of the Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power" now available in paperback.