Friday, 11 July 2008

Seeing God

I want to give this Sermon, my first since back here at New London since the birth of our son, in honour of Harry.

Good luck little one, you'll need it.




I feel a certain sympathy for Bilaam, whacking away at his donkey while we, gentle readers, know far better.


It's a bit like watching poker on television – we know how the cards have been dealt.

We know there is an angel, standing, sword drawn, in the way.

It's only Bilaam who doesn't get it, who can't see.


And I'm drawn the point at which God opens Bilaam's eyes – vayigol adonai et inei  Bilaam.


The Rabbis[1] feign surprise – what was he previously blind? – they pretend to enquire

No, they respond – it's just done to tell you that what the eye sees is a power held by God.


This year, this week, this Rabbinic comment reminded me of what is surely the most powerful articulation of the miracle of childbirth in Rabbinic Judaism. It's from Kohelet Rabba[2]


It was taught; at the time a babe is formed in the womb, there are three partners in its creation; the Holy Blessed One, its father and its mother.

Its father implants the white in the child – the brain, the nails, the white of the eye, the bones and the sinews.

Its mother implants the red – the blood, the skin, the muscle, the hair and the black of the eye.

And the Holy Blessed One, may God's name be blessed, places ten things within the child. And these are they; the soul, the spirit, the lustre of the visage, the ability to see, the sense of hearing, the speech from the lips, the strength of the arms and the legs' ability to walk, wisdom, understanding, counsel and intellect and might.

And when the time comes to pass, the Holy Blessed One, takes back His part and leaves behind the parts of the mother and father before them. And the father and mother weep.


I want to talk about weeping, about seeing, about childbirth and about God.


So, here is Bilaam, one moment looking at a path ahead and being blind as to the reason for the stumbling blocks and the next seeing with eyes newly opened ….


We say every morning

Blessed Are You God pokeach Ivrim – who gives sight to the blinded.

The Hebrew pokeach, suggests something being peeled away, like a cataract – bringing into focus that which had been a blur.

Making distinct that which had impenetrably fuzzy.


It's a great blessing.

It reminds those of us who have never had to consider physical blindness of the gift of our sight.

But more than that, I believe, it reminds us of something spiritual.


Kol Haolam culo- say the Rabbis -  bhezkat sumim, ud she hakadosh baruch hu megalei eineyhem[3]

All the world, every bit of it, is considered blind, until the Holy Blessed one opens their eyes.


None of us see until our eyes are opened.

Not even Bilaam.

Indeed Bilaam's encounter with the Divine on the derekh, his meeting with God on the way, is almost a motif of the Bible.


An example from the passage we read on the first day of the New Year.

Hagar sits cradling her son, dyeing from the lack of water until

וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹקִים אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם

And God peeled back the blindness from her eyes and she saw the well of water.

She's sitting blinded until that revelatory moment.

Her ability to see a well which, we are given to believe, was there all along requires the direct engagement of God.

To see is to experience the miracle.


What seems most remarkable to me, in those precious moments when I have experienced the peeling back of my own blindness, is the way that experience strips me of my grammar, my eloquence, my rationality.

This too is a motif of Genesis.


In another moment of revelation when Joseph finally reveals to his brothers that the great Egyptian vizier they have come to see is none-other than their own long-lost brother

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף

And Joseph tells his brothers 'I AM JOSEPH'

 הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי?

Is my father alive?


 וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו. 

And his brothers couldn't answer him because they were … the verb, nivhalu takes some teasing out – they are terrified, confounded, they are left stuttering in response.


This is what it is to see, finally, a reality hidden until revealed, as if by magic – revealed by means of the miraculous encounter with the Divine.

This is what it is to leave hezkat sumim – the presumption of blindness.


One last journey into the tales of our ancestors.


Jacob flees from the murderous intent of his brother Esau and falls asleep en route to Haran.

And there receives one of the greatest of all Biblical visions – a ladder set on the ground, it's top reaching the sky and the angels of God going up and down.

He wakes and again, his language is broken, you can feel, in the Hebrew the crashing impact of a moment's true sight in a lifetime's blindness.


וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְקוָק בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. 

Wow, there is God in this place and I, I didn't know.[4]

There is a stutter, a breaking in.

Jacob is nivhal – confounded.

He has seen.


There are, perhaps, two great traditions of God-talk in our faith.

One, the tradition that dates back to Maimonides and the great Medieval rationalists.

This tradition of God-talk is philosophical, it is theology in the true meaning of the term – the science of the divine.

This tradition of God-talk is committed to rigorous sober intellectual analysis.


But this dry, philosophical discourse has nothing to do with the experience of Bilaam, the sudden insight of Hagar, the confounding of Joseph's brothers or the experience of waking in the morning and knowing that God was indeed in the very place where I set my head to rest.

These Biblical encounters are connected to a totally different kind of God-talk, a shattering, ineffable, impossible reality that one only knows, that I only know because on those rare moments when my life has been most precious, when I have felt most alive, I too have seen.

I have known, I have felt, in my soul.


These are moments when, just like our ancestors, I've been confounded, nivhal, lost in enormity of what I have seen.


It's a little weird, this experience of the numinous.

We, those of us who have been touched by these moments of revelation can seem a little bizarre, a little unhinged.


There is a fabulous moment in the Book of Samuel when King Solomon seems to be touched by the experience of the Divine – and the good King dances over the hills and

'Then the people said to one another, what has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul off with the prophets?' (I Sam 10:11)

The people think their otherwise all-wise and serious monarch has lost it.

It's dangerous, playing with prophets, seeing with the spiritual cataracts removed, experiencing the confounding presence of the Divine.


I spoke with my brother yesterday afternoon and told him what I wanted to speak about today.

He was worried for me, worried that you, dear friends, might think me a bit unhinged; a little too 'off with the prophets' for a sober community such as this.

I hope he is wrong.

No doubt I will find out at Kiddush.

But I don't really care.

Rabbis should talk about the experience of God from the pulpit.

And in any case, I'm a new father.

And my experiences these past weeks, and most especially the experience of being present at the birth of our son, have been experiences of being broken into, experiences of having the blinkers of rationalism peeled away, experiences of leaving hezkat sumim, the presumption of blindness that afflicted Bilaam, that afflicts us all.


Harry was born at home.

It was Josephine, me and a couple of midwives and when this gorgeous, wrinkled, pink bag of skin and bones emerged alive, and healthy, a baby boy.

As he arrived in his mother's arms, in my wife's arms.

And as I held the two of them for the first time, I saw.

I was confounded.

I was unable to put a sentence together.

I tried to thank the midwives and all I could do was sob at the miracle I saw, the miracle folded into the tiny body before me.


And all the joy and happiness collided with all the fears and fragility.

And I saw.

And I was confounded.


There are three partners in the creation of a child

And the Holy Blessed One, may God's name be blessed, places ten things within him. And these are they; the soul, the spirit, the lustre of the visage, the ability to see and the sense of hearing, the speech from the lips, the strength of the arms and the legs' ability to walk, wisdom, understanding, counsel and intellect and might. And when it comes to the time to pass, the Holy Blessed One, takes back His part and leaves behind the parts of the mother and father before them. And the father and mother weep.


We weep at the beginning and we weep at the end.

Maybe this is the real meaning of that special morning blessing, the one that that praises God pokeach ivrim who opens up the eyes of the blind.

Maybe it's a prayer about the way true sight leads us to tears.

Maybe it's a prayer about the ability to cry; to cry tears of joy when we are lifted higher than any rational discourse can lift.

Maybe it is also a prayer about the ability to cry, to experience the bitterness of loss, deeper than any philosophical discourse can explain.

Maybe this is a prayer about the ability to be confounded, broken in on, lost.

This ability to cry is what lifts our lives beyond the humdrum and into the miraculous.


I had another powerful experience this week, at a Bet Din.

We had a number of candidates for conversion come before us.

It is always an incredibly intense day. These are people for whom being accepted into the Jewish community is immensely important. It's a very sacred and often a very emotional space.

One of the candidates, not anyone associated with this community, came from abroad.

Her English was poor, and she said something about prayer I hadn't fully understood.

I wanted her to clarify.

'How did' I asked, 'she understand the notion of 'One God?''


There was a pause, she started to cry and eventually said, 'It's everything.'

And I cried too.

If this was a Talmudic tale it would continue vtikabel otah miyad – and you should receive her immediately.

Because she got it.

And through her getting it, I got to share in what she had seen, understood.

And we received her immediately.


These experiences don't come often in a life.

But they are the deepest experience of faith.


And yes there are other ways to commit to Jewish life.

There are other ways of doing God-talk, the philosophical, rational theology of Maimonides and those who trace their approach to the Divine to the great super-rationalist of our tradition.


But we should never be afraid of the moment of bursting through.

We should never be afraid of the experience of true sight in all its confounding, blinding, dumbing enormity.


For it is in these fleeting moments of the experience of the world, as it truly is, that we come to know God.


May they come to us all.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Tanhuma 10, Bmidbar Rabba 20:15

[2] Kohelet Rabbah 5:12

[3] Torah Shleimah footnote to Bmidbar 22-169 citing 'b'leket'

[4] Using the translation of Fox who makes the 'redundant' anochi central to the experience of awakening.

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