It was one of those brutal winter mornings for this West Coast kid in Brooklyn, not so much for the stormy weather as for the struggle to sleep in a dormitory where the Israeli contingent had deemed that night party night. A small group of us had cut a deal with Rabbi Yoel Kahan, teacher supreme of Chassidut Chabad, to provide us a class three times a week at 7 AM. There were conditions: one of us had to turn up at his home at 6:30 to wake him, drive him to our semi-authorized-but-not-really room outside the yeshivah, and brew him a strong coffee. Despite the vertigo and aching head, I wouldn’t miss that class for the world.
Reb Yoel, as all his students still call him (may he live for long and healthy years), recognized the torpor of that sleepless night on our faces. I don’t recall the passage we were studying—somewhere in the writings of Rabbi Sholom Dovber, from the year 5672 (1911–12). Deep stuff. Kinda too deep for a morning like this. But in the middle of some obscure passage, he leaped mischievously into a question so ridiculously simple, all of us were now bouncing off the edge of our chairs; so absurdly obvious, none of us could find an answer.
Reb Yoel wanted to know why we couldn’t see G‑d.
“He’s invisible!” came the first response.
That was certainly of no help. Yes, the class was in Yiddish, but Reb Yoel had the words for “tautology” nonetheless.
“G‑d is spiritual,” someone innocently suggested. Boy, was that a mistake.
“G‑d is spiritual,” someone innocently suggested, “and we are physical.” Boy, was that a mistake.
Reb Yoel thundered back, “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth!” G‑d created both the physical and the spiritual, he explained. He Himself is neither.
So we tried this: “Well, if we can’t see spiritual things, like emotions, ideas, angels and higher worlds, how can we expect to see that which is beyond even the spiritual?”
Now we were getting somewhere. Straight into the trap he had laid for us.
“Why can’t you see spiritual things?” he demanded. “There are entire worlds that are spiritual. Where are they hidden?”
“They’re not hidden,” someone responded. “They’re right here. Just that we can’t see them.”
Now Reb Yoel began to move objects around on the table at which we all were seated. “This here,” he pointed to a cassette tape recorder we had sneaked beneath the cover of a book, “is hidden. Why? Because it is not within my field of vision. My vision and this object are in two different places. Therefore, I cannot see it.”
Well, we thought it was hidden. Reb Yoel, at the time, never approved of us recording his classes.
“Now, what about radio waves? Are they hidden? Are they in the same place as we are?”
“Yes, they are,” I answered, eager to display my technological expertise. “This room, and everywhere around us, is full of them, broadcasting every station in New York City.”
“Then why can’t you see them?”
“Because,” I strained, grasping for some way to describe frequency spectrums in Yiddish, “radio waves are not . . .”
“They are not within the same space as your vision!”
“Okay.” Same difference, I figured.
“So, as far as your eyes are concerned, radio waves are not here. And the same with emotions, and ideas, and angels, and higher worlds—they are not here. They are not within the same world as your physical eyes. So, you can’t see them.”
This was starting to make sense. But I wasn’t prepared for the bomb that came next.
“So, why can’t you see G‑d?” he clamored. “Isn’t G‑d everywhere?”
The class exploded into yet more futile regurgitations of our earlier attempts, in yet more feeble forms.
“But G‑d is formless! How can you see something that is formless?”
Useless answer. He’s here, now, nonetheless. Here, in our world of form.
“G‑d is not something you see. Seeing and G‑d are way apart!”
He’s in ideas. He’s in emotions. He’s in the palpable, visceral world of the senses. Why isn’t He in your field of vision?
More useless. G‑d is everywhere. He’s in the heavens, and He’s here on earth. He’s in ideas. He’s in emotions. He’s in the palpable, visceral world of the senses. He’s in the cool earth of the ground you clump in your hand and squeeze out between your fingers. He’s in the ethereal world of the philosopher, and He’s in the pragmatic world of the trucker speeding down Interstate 86. He’s in the putrid world of the worker digging out the city sewers down the street, and He’s in the aroma of the garlic our cook was now sprinkling on the chickens for tonight’s dinner. None of this could exist if He were not there. He’s everywhere, in everything. So, He’s certainly in your field of vision. Why can’t you see Him?
We had visibly given up, but the tension of the lecture was like static electricity waiting for a lightning bolt.
“The spiritual worlds,” Reb Yoel continued, “the World of Formation, the World of Creation—realms of angels and souls—they are not in another place that you could travel to. Yet, neither are they here. You and they are in different spaces—even more than radio waves.”
“But the World of G‑dliness—that is here, now!”
Then the answer. As simple as was the question, so the answer. Far too simple for sophisticated students as ourselves.
Reb Yoel leaned forward. “The only reason you cannot see G‑d,” he whispered, “is because He doesn’t want you to.”
“This is why we call Him ‘the hidden G‑d.’ Achein atah Keil Mistater—‘Truly, You are the Hiding G‑d.’ Because He is the only one who is truly hidden. Everything else is not truly hidden—it’s simply not here. But He, He is hidden even when He is here. He is present in His absence, absent in His presence.”
“G‑d, you see, is not a something, not a presence. G‑d just is.”
The rest passed over my head. And the cassette recording turned out futile as well.
In that class, Reb Yoel provided us a key to unlock so many passages in the teachings of Chabad. Here’s the vital passage in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s The Gate of Unity and Faith (both translation and italics are my own):
Now, just as no created being has the capacity to grasp G‑d’s mode of greatness—meaning, His capacity to create something from nothing and vitalize it . . .—just the same way, none has the capacity to fathom G‑d’s mode of might. This is the modality of constraining the spread of vital energy from His greatness, so that rather than an open descent, energizing and sustaining the creations overtly, the energy is masked so that it remains undetectable within the actual created being. The creation now appears as though it were an autonomous entity, and not simply the artifact of a breath-like current of energy. Rather than appearing as sunlight appears—as nothing more than the radiance of the sun—it is now a something all of its own.
Truthfully, it is not its own entity, but actually quite similar to the sun’s radiation. Yet, that itself is the awesome might of a wholly transcendent G‑d: He can do anything, and so He can constrain this breath-like vitalizing energy that flows from the breath of His mouth until it becomes undetectable, so as not to annihilate the identity of the created being.
This is the facet that no created mind can fathom: What kind of constraining process is this that renders a vital force undetectable—and yet, a creation emerges out of the void? This is not within the capacity of a created being to comprehend—just as no created being can fathom how something can be created out of nothing to begin with.
Years later, I found another expert to ask the same question—my three-year-old daughter. I asked her why we couldn’t see G‑d. Her eyes opened wide as she whispered, “He’s hiding!”
Only then did I feel as stupid as I should have felt back there with Reb Yoel. I guess, when it comes to G‑d, we’re all better off thinking like three-year-olds.