Seeing God: A Drash

A drash is a talk or sermon based on that day's Torah portion. I delivered this drash at Keddem Congregation, Palo Alto, CA, on Saturday, September 19, 2009. My current project and its connection to this drash are best explained by my article "Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons." Thank you for your interest.
Martin Hellman

I would like to add my own warm welcome to our guests, and thank my fellow congregants for the honor of delivering the drash on this special Sabbath that is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah. May God help me find the right words and the right place in my own heart that I may do justice to that trust.

In this drash I will explore a connection between today's Torah portion, Genesis 21, concerning the casting out of Hagar, and the theme of these High Holidays as our Days of Awe. I will also try to build a bridge connecting the mystical and rational domains.

In Genesis 21, God speaks to Abraham and hears both Ishmael and Hagar. Earlier, in Genesis 16, God talks to Hagar, and Hagar even sees God, the first woman to do so. When we humans hear that God spoke to someone or someone saw God, it tends to conjure up an image of a man-like God. That tendency causes us to make God in our own image, instead of vice versa. While natural, that process is fraught with danger, particularly during these Days of Awe, when we need to come to terms with God for the coming year.

Thinking of God as having ears to hear, a mouth to speak, or a face to be seen, limits our perception and prevents us from being in appropriate awe of the tremendous mystery which envelops us.

To put that in terms for the rational mind, if we try to assign a size to God, clearly God would have to be at least as large as the known universe. But, a human being is much smaller compared to the known universe than an electron is compared to one of us. So, in a sense, it is far easier for an electron residing in my body to understand me than it is for me to understand God.

Now a confession: I believe in a God with a sense of humor. Of course, there I go anthropomorphizing God – exactly what I've said we need to be careful of! So my attempting to share what I see as one of God's best jokes may seem paradoxical. But I've come to see paradox as a divine art form, so I beg your forgiveness.

What is God's best joke? It's called Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. It is so powerful that, when I first met it as a graduate student over 40 years ago, it almost caused me to have a mental breakdown. I had built my life on a foundation of logic, and logic was now showing itself, at best, to be incomplete.

Roughly speaking, Gödel proved that there are truths that we can never know – that human beings cannot know all that is true. What does it mean for there to be a truth that we cannot know. Who knows it? Only God.

So Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem basically proves that God knows things that we cannot. If one grants that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem is part of God's Creation, not only did God set things up so that we cannot know everything, but God set it up so that we can prove that! Quite a joke, though perhaps at our expense.

To summarize what I've been trying to communicate up to this point: The Torah portion might lead us to picture a God with ears, a mouth and a face. By appeal to the Incompleteness Theorem and our being smaller compared to God than an electron is compared to us, I have tried to overcome that tendency and reinstate God's rightful place as Ultimate Mystery.

Given that God is unknowable, how are we to make our lives right with God before Yom Kippur when, in our tradition, the Book of Life, with the fate of all humanity is said to be sealed? Not surprisingly, I believe the answer involves another paradox, since I earlier called that a divine art form.

I just said that making God in our image is dangerous, so it might seem paradoxical that I now propose we look for God in our fellow human beings. Here's why:

As an engineer and scientist, I am trained that, when confronted with a mystery, I should do what detectives do: look for clues, starting with the most obvious suspects. If one is searching for God, a good place to look is wherever there is a miracle. If objects near the Holy Ark were to start levitating, we would look first in the ark. But, without chemical assistance, I doubt any of us have witnessed miracles of that nature, so we must look at the even more amazing miracles: those that masquerade in plain sight as everyday life.

If we saw balls of clay spontaneously forming into human beings, clearly that would be a miracle and a place to look for signs of God. But each of us is sitting next to human beings spontaneously formed from balls of clay. Admittedly, I took some poetic license – we are more like sun-baked mud since that is the source of all our food.

But the miracle of life, in which those inert constituents are transformed into new living tissue, and even whole new human beings, is no less a miracle just because we have some understanding of the processes by which it happens. To my mind, it makes Creation all the more miraculous that we balls of clay can understand some of the incantations that physics, chemistry and biology use to work their magic. Maybe that's a way that God makes up for Gödel's Incompleteness Joke being at our expense.

While I initially called it a paradox, warning against imposing a human form on God is not really inconsistent with looking for God in our fellow human beings. The former limits God, whereas the latter expands our limited perception of others. It also provides a foundation for acts of Tikkun Olam (healing the world). If we learn to see the spark of God in other human beings, we will naturally treat them with a respect that is sorely needed in the world.

Another way to see God in others is to look for a reflection of ourselves. As prescribed in Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Hillel's related injunction, not to do unto others what is hateful to us, is another way to look for ourselves in others.

Whether in its positive or negative statement, the Golden Rule has been quoted so often that there is an understandable tendency to dismiss it and say, "Of course. But don't I already do that?"

My answer is that, no matter how well one follows the Golden Rule, there is always room for improvement. It is an ideal that no human being can achieve. At best, with constant effort, we can approach it as an asymptote.

That's certainly been my personal experience. No matter how hard I try, when I am frustrated or tired or pushed to the limits, I will sometimes fail to live up to that ideal. Worse, I am often blind to my failure.

If I fall into a conflict with someone else, I naturally try to contain my anger. What I often miss is how some of my anger leaks out anyway, or is telegraphed to the other person in spite of my attempts to be as reasonable as possible. Also, in the weakened spiritual state that a conflict engenders, I am prone to take the other person's words and actions more negatively than they were intended, respond inappropriately, and add more fuel to the fire.

In my life, I have found this to be true not only with obvious adversaries, as occurred during a heated patent fight, but also with people as dear to me as my wife, my children, and my grandchildren.

So I suggest we look for God in the hurt faces of all those who feel wronged by us, even when we see no reason for them to feel that way. No! Change that to especially when we see no reason for them to feel that way. That's when our seeing God in others is most needed and most effective.

The need to look beyond self-congratulatory views of ourselves, in which someone else is to blame for every conflict, extends to the international level, and with far graver consequences if we fail to do so. Our relations with many nations are in urgent need of tikkun, and in all instances that I have examined, the other side is not solely to blame for the tension. Rather, I have always found something for which we as a nation could atone and thereby possibly start the healing process.

If we look for God in the faces of others in the manner I've just proposed, and especially if we do that with those with whom we have an adversarial or enemy relationship, we come closer to Truth – truth about others, truth about ourselves, and truth about reality.

When I do that, the pain that I experienced on first learning of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem evaporates. Why bewail my inability to know all truths, when I overlook important truths staring me in the face that are essential to leaving a viable world to my children and grandchildren?

This possibility of moving into a new kind of Promised Land, flowing not only with milk and honey, but also with Truth, is a vision worthy of these Days of Awe.

I end this drash with a wish and a plea. The wish, "May you and all humanity be written well in the Book of Life."

The plea, "Look for the face of God in your fellow human beings, especially those who feel wronged by you, and especially when those feelings seem unwarranted."

I am convinced that that plea, if followed, will make the wish come true.

L'Shanah Tova! (To a Good Year!)


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