THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא
September 9, 2017 – י”ח אלול תשע”ז
This essay is dedicated in memory of Dr. Polly Etkind Hochberg Z”L.
God in Heaven
Scripture requires the Israelite farmer to make a tithe declaration after each three-year agricultural cycle. The yeoman verbally acknowledges that he has removed from his home all portions of the crop that must be donated and that he did not mishandle or violate the sanctity of that part of the produce. The declaration ends with a prayer for God’s beneficence. “Look down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless your people Israel and the soil that You have given us as You swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 26:15).”
The double preposition, “from Your holy abode, from the heavens,” is jarring and seemingly redundant. Bible scholars observe that 26:15 is consistent with a recurring theological teaching in Deuteronomy that God does not have any particular spot as His earthly abode. The Temple, regarded by many ancients as God’s actual dwelling place, is merely the location where He chooses to rest His name (see Deuteronomy 12:11, 16:11, 26:2). The heavens, the vast and unknown regions above the earth, rather, represent God’s true home.
Bernard Levinson, in his annotations for the Jewish Study Bible, suggests that the second prepositional phrase, “from the heavens,” represents a correction of older theology in light of newer teachings. The older view, that God has an earthly home, does find expression in stray Scriptural passages. Solomon inaugurated his Temple by announcing to God that “I have built for You a stately house; a place where You may dwell forever (I Kings 8:13).” The Chronicler recalled God’s attempt to spare the Temple by sending prophets of doom to warn the people of the need to repent. “The Lord God of their fathers had sent word to them through his messengers daily without fail, for He had pity on His people and His dwelling-place (II Chronicles 36:15).”
In an earlier essay (“Mountain of God,” January 2, 2016), I addressed the issue of God’s earthly, mountaintop home. An ancient strand of Biblical theology identified God’s home as being atop a southern mountain. “The Lord came from Sinai; He shown upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran (Deuteronomy 33:2).” Similarly, “God is coming from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His majesty covers the skies; His splendor fills the earth (Habakuk 3:3).” Other passages exclusively refer to Sinai, the site of the Revelation. “The mountains quaked before the Lord, Him of Sinai, before the Lord, God of Israel” (Judges 5:5, see also Psalms 68:9). In later Biblical theology, the Divine headquarters is atop Mount Zion. “The Lord roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem (Amos 1:2).” Less frightening, and offering an alternative geography for Divine Revelation, is this: “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God appeared (Psalms 50:2).”
The notion that God rests atop a mountain fits well with the petition in Deuteronomy 26:15 for God to gaze down upon His people and grant them prosperity. Had the phrase “from the heavens” not appeared in the text, the verse would nonetheless be intelligible and coherent, even if theologically objectionable to later readers. Moreover, the notion of an elevated, though still earthly, Divine abode would have resonated in an era when many cultures believed the gods resided on mountaintops (e.g., the Greek gods atop Mount Olympus).
The idea of an earthly home for God (whether in the hollow between the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Temple on Mount Moriah, in Jerusalem, or elsewhere) was deemed unacceptable because it seems to imply spatial limits on God, about Whom it is said “His presence fills all the earth” (Isaiah 6:3). The verse that best encapsulates this objection reads: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool; where could you build a house for Me, what place could serve as My abode (66:1)?”
The later prophets and writers assumed that God dwells in a heavenly abode. Isaiah described God as “He who high aloft forever dwells (57:15).” In another verse, he asked God to “look down from heaven and see, from Your holy and glorious height (63:15).” Jeremiah described God’s rage this way: “The Lord roars from on high, He makes His voice heard from His holy dwelling (Jeremiah 25:30).” The Psalmist notes: “The Lord has established His throne in heaven (Psalms 103:19).” In describing the liturgical component of the Temple service in the days of Hezekiah, the Chronicler recounted that “their prayer went up to His holy abode, to heaven (II Chronicles 30:27).” Even Solomon, in his dedicatory prayer for the Temple, beseeched God to “give heed in Your heavenly abode (I Kings 8:30).”
Arguably, however, the theological objections to a Temple abode for God are not resolved by pushing God’s home into the sky. The home of a God Who always has existed and who transcends the notions of time and space should not be in a created, physical world. The heavens, השמים, too are physical places and possibly even part of our planet. God told Abraham to gaze up at the sky and count the stars (Genesis 15:5). At its most distant, then, השמים is in the celestial realm of outer space, still part of the created universe. Alternatively, השמים is the place from which rain and snow descend (Isaiah 55:10), merely a few thousand feet above sea level.
The theological challenge is met fully only if one posits that השמים is a metaphysical place that cannot be measured or bounded. God’s home is in an entirely other realm, outside of the laws of physics. In the Midrash, Rabbi Ishmael hints at this concept in noting the redundant prepositional phrase in Deuteronomy 26:15. Since it was obvious to him that God’s abode is in the heavens, the purpose of “from the heavens,” in his view, was to teach that השמים means the storehouse of God’s beneficence (Midrash Tannaim 26). The most compelling Scriptural source for this idea is this: “The Lord will open for you His goodly treasure, the heavens (Deuteronomy 28:12).” Similarly, the source of the manna, the lifesaving bread of the wilderness, was the heavens (Exodus 16:4). In that context, one can easily read השמים not as intending the earthly sky but instead the repository of God’s salvific powers.
In the Tannaitic period, אבינו שבשמים, “Our Father in heaven,” became a popular epithet for God. Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair taught that we have nobody upon whom to rely other than “Our Father in heaven” (Mishnah Sotah 9:15). Rabbi Akiba taught that Israel is praiseworthy insofar as it is cleansed of sin and purified directly by “Our Father in heaven” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). For modern day synagogue attendees, the expression is perhaps best-known and recognized as the beginning of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel.
The evidence suggests, however, that, even if some advanced thinkers understood heaven in the metaphysical sense, in the mind of the simple Jew and in the lexicon of the rabbis the heavenly abode of God was indeed in the sky. When Rava and Abaye were toddlers, Rabbah asked them “to Whom do we say blessings?” They responded: To God. He asked, “And where is God?” Rava pointed upward to the ceiling beams. Abaye pointed out the window to the sky. Rabbah was impressed and predicted that the two boys would become great rabbis (Berakhot 48a). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch offered sagely advice. “Reflect on three things and you will not fall into transgression: Know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written (Avot 2:1).”
The rabbis were troubled by the role played by the hands of Moses in the battle against Amalek. They could not accept that the raising of Moses’ hands effected victory or that his lowering of his hands led to defeat. Similarly, the rabbis were bothered by the idea that merely gazing upon the snake made of copper (Nehushtan) could provide healing to those wilderness Israelites bitten by the viper-serpents. The rabbis concluded that the hands of Moses and the copper snake were no more than tools to bring the Israelites to gaze heavenward and subordinate their hearts to the Almighty (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8). Taken for granted in their analysis is the idea that looking skyward is an effective means by which to gear one’s thoughts to the Divine will.
God’s dwelling place as a high-altitude perch in the celestial realm from which He can literally look down upon Israel and assess its behavior fits with the rabbinic understanding of judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Although, like sheep passing before a shepherd, we are marched single file past the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashanah, nonetheless we are all judged by the King of Kings in one single glance (Rosh Hashanah 18a). This is, arguably, possible only if the Judge has a bird’s eye view of humanity.
Where is God? Is He in the clouds? The stratosphere? Deep space? No. God is no more in those upper regions that He is at ground level. God’s dwelling place is in Heaven, a place beyond our grasp or comprehension. But in man’s perpetual search for God, he needs to look somewhere for answers. In our moments of sincere communion with God, we tend to gaze up at the heavens, the earthly sky, and hope to find inspiration.