Scientists in the 19th century assumed that all the empty space in the universe was filled with a substance called ether, which is sort of like water in the ocean: It’s the basic material that everything, such as light, moves through.
However, in 1887 a group of scientists in Cleveland did an experiment that made it clear that there is no ether. There is just empty space that has no effect on the objects passing through it. This surprising discovery overturned centuries of accepted dogma about the structure of the universe. We are not fish swimming in an ocean filled with water, but rather lonely objects spinning through truly empty space.
This loss of certainty about the structure of the universe parallels experience of the Jewish people in this week’s parashah.
When we lived in Egypt, we were completely surrounded by the ocean of extravagant pagan practices. Unlike the deities of Egypt, who could take animal, human or sculptural form — and often are found in combinations of all three — the God of Israel cannot be seen.
The rich visual culture of kings, priests, artisans, gods and hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt was totally lacking in the wilderness after our liberation. We were free but terrified of being disconnected from the familiar, reassuring, compelling and all-enveloping ocean of life in Egypt.
Indeed, this sense of disconnection was so strong that the Jewish people panicked and demanded that Aaron make a new god statue for the people. He collects gold and makes, of all things, a calf. After getting over the shock of the calf god and promptly disposing of it, Moshe asks to see what God actually looks like.
God’s reply is puzzling. Instead of saying “I do not have a physical form”, God says that Moshe cannot see the Deity’s face but “I will take My hand away and you will see My back.”
This exchange suggests a strong desire even for Moshe to see God in a physical form, to be able to trust and believe. The Tosafists, who were French commentators on the Torah who lived in the Middle Ages, write that this verse should be interpreted as meaning that Moshe could see something, but could not directly identify it. Instead, it was like looking at someone from behind and not knowing who they are. Clearly, even Moshe was not able to perceive the Divine directly. But it’s clear from the Torah that he really wanted to.
How do we deal with these texts today in contemporary America, where we also demand to see things with our own eyes, and where the old Egyptian gods have reemerged in new form to satisfy this desire?
Nowadays, instead of Anubis and Osiris and Ra, we have the Super Bowl, the iPhone and Wall Street, all of which are objects of incredible desire, invested with great powers, and sometimes even worshiped.
These are the new gods of our materialistic culture and they can be easily seen. Their powers are on display for all to see. Given this contemporary context, how can we still be loyal to the God of the Torah, whom we cannot see? In other words, what might God’s face look like to us, today?
Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Rambam or Maimonides, 1135-1204 C.E.) was one of the great proponents of rationalist understanding of Torah. He is the foremost medieval synthesizer of Jewish law and a central figure in Jewish philosophy. He wrote that God truly has no body and any references to a body have to be read as allegory.
Instead of worrying about the physical form of God, Rambam emphasized the immutable nature of the Torah and mitzvot (commandments).
The actual activity of living a Jewish life is what connects us to the divine. We don’t need to see God’s face since, according to the mystical teachings of the Zohar, we can see God in the faces of our children when they joyfully learn Torah.
So put down that iPhone and go study Torah with a Jewish child. You will see God’s face. I promise it’s better than a golden calf.