Acharei – Kedoshim: When God Becomes An Excuse for Fear – The Danger of Confusing Transcendence with Habit
Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway.
— Mary C. Crowley
God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.
— Jacques Deval
“Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal,” the Torah instructs us in the portion of Kedoshim.
How could an intelligent person believe that a piece of metal is god? We could perhaps appreciate how ancient pagan societies attributed divine qualities to powerful, transcendent forces of nature, like the Zodiac signs, the sun, the moon, various galaxies, the wind, fire, water, etc. But why would a thoughtful human being believe god could be fashioned out of cast metal?
Even if we can explain how in the ancient, pagan world such an idea could be entertained seriously, how does this commandment in Torah -a timeless blueprint for human life – apply to our lives today?
I once encountered a beautiful interpretation to these words, which is profoundly relevant to the human psyche in all times. What this biblical verse – “Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal” — is telling us is not to construct a god of a lifestyle and a weltanschauung that has become like “cast metal;” one that is cast and solidified in a fixed mold.
A natural human tendency is to worship that which we have become comfortable with. We worship our habits, patterns, attitudes, routines and inclinations simply because we have accustomed ourselves to them and they are part of our lives. People love that which does not surprise them; we want to enjoy a god that suits our philosophical and emotional paradigms and comfort zones. We tend to embrace the fixed, unchangeable and permanent molten god.
Comes the Torah and says: Do not turn your pre-established mold into your god. Do not turn your habits, natural patterns of thought, fears, inclinations or addictions into a deity. Life is about challenge, growth and mystery. Never say, “This is the way I am; this is the way I do things, I cannot change.” Never think, “This is the world view I am comfortable with; any other way must be wrong.” Rather, you ought to muster the courage to challenge every instinct, temptation and convention; question every dogma, including dogmas that speak in the name of open mindedness, and are embraced simply because you fall back on that which you have been taught again and again. Let your life not become enslaved to a particular pattern just because it has been that way for many years or decades. G-d, the real G-d, is not defined by any conventions; let your soul, too, not be confined by any external conventions. Experience the freedom of your creator.
Judaism never articulated who G-d is and what G-d looks like. What it did teach us is what G-d does NOT look like: G-d ought never to be defined by any image we attribute to Him, hewn by the instruments of our conscious or subconscious needs and aspirations. In Jewish philosophy, never mind in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought, we never speak of what G-d is; only of what He is not: G-d is not an extension of my being or imagination.
The common Yiddish term for G-d used by some of the greatest Jewish mystics, thinkers and holy men is “Oybershter,” which means “higher.” Not Creator, not Master, not All-Powerful, etc, but “higher.” What this term represents is this idea: I do not know what He is; all I know is that whatever my definition of truth and reality, whatever my definition for G-d — he is “higher” than that. All I know is that I do not know.
Thus, to be open to the G-d of the Hebrew Bible means to be open to never ending mystery, infinite grandeur, limitless sublimity and possibility; it is the profound readiness at every moment of life to open ourselves to transcendence. And what was transcendent yesterday — can become a form of exile today. Transcendence itself must also be transcendent, for it too can become a trap, albeit a subtle and spiritual trap.
And that which remains of your ambitions and desires after you have faced all of your fears and challenged all of your defenses, that is where your will meets G-d’s will. At that point of complete humility and sincerity, you become truly one with yourself, one with the inner core of reality.
In the words of the Zohar, “No thought, no idea, can grasp Him; yet He can be grasped with the pure desire of the heart.”