Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

Getting Personal With G-d

Getting Personal With G-d

 Email

Question:

It would be nice to think I could have a personal relationship with G‑d, that I could feel He's pleased with me, or that I matter in some way to Him. But I'm a rational person. I can relate to a G‑d Who invented physics and the time-space continuum; Who brought electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear forces into being; Who set electrons in their orbits and photons in their paths — the whole thing is totally awesome. But how can you talk about a personal relationship with such a G‑d? How can you make a connection between the visceral, human emotional experience and the awesome, unknowable Creator of Time and Space?

You know what it is? You've done the personification thing with G‑d! Just like kids talk about animals and even inanimate objects as though they were other kids, with real personalities. Like Microsoft wants you to give a name to the help system on your computer and talk about it as though it were a person. But it's not. It's a function of a dumb computer. Well, you've done the same thing with G‑d — but in reverse. The computer is way beneath the human conscious experience. G‑d is something way beyond.


A short answer:

So you know where physics comes from, and you call that G‑d. But where do human emotions, ideas and experience come from?

The ancients put it rhetorically: "The One who set the ear doesn't hear? He who formed the eye doesn't see? He teaches Man knowledge and He doesn't know?" So too, we can ask, "The One who breathed love and compassion into the human heart — doesn't He also know such things?"

Yes, in a way far beyond our way — since we are talking of the primal source of these emotions. "As the heavens are high above the earth," the prophet says, "so My ways are beyond your ways." And yes, He Himself is in essence far transcendent even of those emotive powers. But, nevertheless, He chose to be expressed in those forms, and to relate to us little beings in that way. And that is how we relate to Him.

As expressed in "The Daily Dose":

"Does G‑d then laugh? Is He so vulnerable that He cries over His failures and rejoices in success? Does He love with the passion of a frail human being? Does the G‑d who brings heaven and earth into being from the void feel regret as any creature trapped within the tunnel of time?

"But G‑d desired Man and all his struggles — as we see from the fact that we are here. And G‑d looked down from His lofty realm beyond love and laughter and passion and remorse, down into this thought of a human being. And He said, 'It is not good that Man be alone.'

"That is why He made with Man a meeting place, in the fabric of Man's soul and in the bowel's of G‑d's infinite light. So that in love and laughter and compassion and awe and beauty, Man and G‑d could find one another, and neither would be alone."


A little longer answer:

Let's back up a little. There's a larger problem here. Why do we think of G‑d the way we do? Because all of us are vulnerable to that typical trap of human perception: The paradigm trap.

The paradigm trap is when you organize all information in a single way that seems simplest to you. Today, our paradigm trap is most often entirely materialistic. Small surprise it leaves no room for a personal G‑d.

The Human Thinking Trap

Let's talk about typical paradigm traps. You're probably familiar with those optical illusion diagrams, where people see circles or diamonds where there really aren't any — just that this is the way our minds organize incoming visual data to make it simpler. Well, our minds don't limit those tricks to our vision alone. It affects every area of our conscious domain.

Small children tend to organize larger and smaller objects into families, with a Daddy, a Mommy, big sister, little brother, baby — whatever they are familiar with. Educated citizens of liberal democracies kvetch bloody conflicts between rival warlords into terms of struggles for human rights.

We paradigm G‑d, as well. Aristotle and his buddies lived in a rather simple, very human world, where the most interesting thing was human thought. In his days, they spoke about nature in terms of qualities and mind. G‑d became a Grand Mind.

In the Renaissance, people became fascinated with neat little machines and clever mechanisms. Original thinkers, such as Galileo, started talking about the world in terms of measurements and mechanics. The thrust began towards materialist reductionism: reduce everything to its most essential material parts, see how those parts work, and everything will be understood. In the twentieth century, such thinking reached an absurd extreme: the belief that even human emotions and consciousness are no more than an artifact of gray-matter mechanics. Everything — including you and I — became a dumb machine.

And if everything in this world is no more than another dumb machine within one big dumb machine, then the god behind it all must be one big, dumb god — if he is there at all.

As one literary critic re-phrased Wordsworth, "To dissect is to kill." Reductionist surgery managed to kill Life itself.

The View From Above

So what's wrong with this paradigm?

First of all, the belief that all of reality can be understood within any single paradigm is naïve. It's true that various fields of science have come up with marvelous models to predict specific behaviors of systems. But, after all, all we are doing is extending our childhood play with dollhouses and Lego sets: creating models of reality to simplify matters for our puny minds and computer calculations. However, the only true model of a thing is the thing itself. It is foolish to imagine that any of these mathematical models equal "the thing itself."

Secondly, and specifically concerning materialist reductionism: The plain fact is, there is no empirical basis to this concept. Science has yet to isolate a "most simple part" to which all can be reduced. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that all parts of the universe are integrally related as a single whole. To the perturbation of the reductionist camp, those trouble-making quantum physicists have demonstrated some shocking examples of such. For instance, two atoms light years apart may be related to each other in such a way that an event in one of them is immediately reciprocated in the state of the other. No part of the cosmos can be seen as a "discrete, private unit."

To quote one of the fathers of modern physics, Max Planck, near the end of his biography, "And so, in conclusion, we have discovered that there is indeed no matter."

For this and many other reasons, many mainstream thinkers — in fields as diverse as quantum mechanics, ecology and medicine — are proponents of a "holistic approach." Rather than beginning from the parts and putting the pieces together to explain the whole, they start with the entirety of any system and explain the details as modalities of that whole. Paths of electrons are oscillations of the cosmos, somewhat as ripples in a pond are not a separate entity from the pond but just "the pond rippling." Plants and animals are modalities of planet earth. Health and illness are dynamics of body and mind. No part can be understood without its context within the whole. In fact, there are no "parts" — in the sense that this term was previously understood.

So, how about the human personality? A reductionist will tell you that if you are feeling inspired, depressed, enraptured, bored or indifferent, it is because your chemicals are reacting to stimuli in ways that give rise to the illusion that you have a mind. (Don't worry; they also suffer this illusion, and more.) Mind becomes a function of Body.

The holists put it the other way: Our chemicals, our hormones, our cells are all particular modalities of our total state of being. (Think back to the rippling of the pond metaphor. Now think of the goings-on inside your body as ripples — you being the pond.) Since the mind is the most pervasive element of that "total state," it is the first place to look at in healing. Body becomes a process of Mind.

Although I would be loathe to place Torah in either camp, it is noteworthy that the Creation account in Torah is consistent with this holistic, top-down manner: In the very first verse, G‑d creates the heavens and the earth. Everything. Then come the details. And in the details as well: G‑d does not decorate the earth with goodies out of His box. Rather, He speaks to the earth and tells it "Sprout foliage!" Read that as, "Become a living organism!" Vegetation becomes a function of planet earth, as do all living creatures, and even the human body is formed from its mud. The entire system is discussed as a whole — not as plants and animals appearing, but as earth sprouting and coming alive.

The Supernal Mind and Heart

Just as we discussed the many functions of the human body as modalities of a single human personality, the sages of the Talmud do a similar thing with the cosmos and its "personality":

"With ten things the world was created, with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge... as it is written, "G‑d, by Wisdom founded the earth, by Understanding He established the heavens, by His Knowledge the depths were split... " (Talmud Chagiga, 12a).

In the Zohar, Elijah the Prophet speaks to G‑d, saying,

"You are One, but not in a numerical sense. You are transcendent above all transcendences, concealed beyond all concealments. No thought can grasp You. You have brought out ten garments and we call them the Sefirot, wherewith to direct hidden worlds, unrevealed, and worlds revealed, and You conceal Yourself within them... " (Introduction to Tikunei Zohar)

In other words, the mechanics by which the world operates are no more than modalities of these ten domains and the dynamics between them. And these ten are no more than modalities of an unbounded, transcendent Oneness, concealed within them. Again, the rippling of the pond metaphor is useful — only now the pond is an infinitely vast ocean. Even more useful is the metaphor the Kabbalists themselves use of light emanating from the sun. The light is not a thing in itself, but only "the sun emanating." So too, the ten Sefirot are modalities — "emanations" — of an infinite source, and the cosmos is an artifact of those modalities.

A sprout of grass breaking out of the soil is a modality of Infinity: G‑d is expressing Himself as the act of organic growth. Our speech, daily lives and emotional struggles are the Infinite expressed within human personalities. Of course, the distance between the One who is "transcendent beyond all transcendences" and a fledgling sprout of grass, or a mortal human being is beyond conception. But, to quote Avraham Joshua Heschel:

"The very structure of matter is made possible by the way in which the endless crystallizes in the smallest. If the stream of energy that is stored up in the sun and the soil can be channeled into a blade of grass, why should it be a priori excluded that the spirit of G‑d reached into the minds of men?

"There is such a distance between the sun and a flower. Can a flower, worlds away from the source of energy, attain a perception of its origin? Can a drop of water ever soar to behold, even for a moment, the stream's distant source? In prophecy it is as if the sun communed with the flower, as if the source sent out a current to reach the drop" (A. J. Heschel, G‑d in Search of Man).

Ten Modalities and the World They Generate

It may help to describe these ten Sefirot and their relationship to the cosmos in more detail. The first of the ten are "mind powers." They stay beyond the direct dynamics of world — in the background, so to speak. Think of the concept paper of a project: it pervades all aspects of development, but it remains outside of the day-to-day grind.

The next three are the dominant powers of creation: "Greatness" or "Benevolence" is the positive force behind creation ex nihilo. "Power" or "Severity" is the negative force of withdrawal of presence. "Compassion" or "Beauty" is the balancing, cohesive force. After those come another three that are no more than expressions of the dominant powers in an engaged, active role. Finally, comes Dominion, which is the point where all powers come together to "get real" (see diagram).

It seems clumsy talking about such abstract concepts within such a rigid model, but as long as we continuously remind ourselves that it is only a representation of something far more abstract, we'll be okay. In fact, it's the only cosmic model I know of that comes with rabbinical certification.

Turns out, there are actually four creative powers behind the cosmos: The three dominant powers of Kindness, Severity and Beauty, plus Dominion. The four fundamental modalities of physics are physical manifestations of these. In classical terms, they are called Fire, Air, Water and Earth. The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that these may correspond with the paradigm of quantum physics as "positive, negative, matter and anti-matter" (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 38. pg 20).

Turns out that those electrons flying in their orbits, photons in their paths, et al, are merely manifestations of the higher dynamics of G‑d's kindness, severity, beauty and dominion.

Furthermore, the properties of each thing arise from these ten powers: To connect the ten together, the Kabbalists draw twelve lines (see above diagram). Ten plus twelve equals twenty-two, and from this arises the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Those twenty-two powers combine in endless permutations to generate the animating force behind each particular creation. As Rabbi DovBer of Mezritch taught, the name each thing is called in Biblical Hebrew is a direct representation of the force that projects it into being and animates it.

As it turns out, the supernal emotive powers are the fundamental fabric of all things. And their most comprehensive expression within the entire cosmos is the fathomless depth of the human heart.

Of course, G‑d could have made a world that is no more than a dumb machine. Why did He choose to first manifest His light invested in these ten powers, and only then allow those ten to manifest themselves as a physical world? Again, the rabbis ask the same question, but dressed up in deceivingly simple terms. They say, "The world was created with ten sayings. What does this teach us? Wouldn't it be possible for the world to be created with a single statement? But this is to exact retribution from the wicked who destroy a world created with ten sayings, and to dispense reward to the righteous who sustain a world created with ten sayings" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:1).

Rather enigmatic, but here's what it means: G‑d could have said, "Here am I and, bang, here's a world. It works. That's good enough." But then it would be a dumb world, a world that explains itself, because, well, there isn't really much to explain.

That's not what He wanted. He wanted a world where its creatures could reach up to Him and He would reach down to them, until an affinity between Creation and Creator would develop and He could be found within His masterpiece.

So, He made a bridge. As we said, He first invested the light of His presence within ten faculties. And from these, He gave form and life to all created beings. The beings themselves, especially the human being, are designed to match those supernal faculties. We are "in the image of G‑d" because we have the power to be kind, to withhold that kindness, to act with compassion and beauty, and to dominate our surroundings. Our minds, as well, are capable of receiving Divine inspiration and ideas, of making sense of the world about us, of consciousness and free will.

To reach back to our Creator, then, what we need do is to find Him within those Divine Attributes. This is the mitzvah of the Torah, "you must walk in His ways." The sages ask, "Is it really possible to walk in His ways? Rather, this means to bond to His attributes. He is kind — you too must be kind. He is merciful, you too must be merciful... " (Talmud, Sotah 14a).

This is an all-encompassing mitzvah, because it stands behind every other mitzvah: in each act we are empowered to emulate our Creator in His relationship with His creation. When we plunge the depths of the Torah with all our mind, our intellect becomes one with the Divine Mind. When we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into an act prescribed by Torah, our souls become transparent conduits for Divine kindness and beauty. When we do otherwise, we cause of distortion of those attributes and they become expressed as vice and ugliness. If we act with anger and vengeance, we further distort the expression of G‑dliness in this world. But when we exact justice with compassion, we allow those G‑dly attributes to flow smoothly through His world.

By reaching to G‑d in a personal way, involving all our mind and all our heart, reaching to Him in our prayer and through our daily experience, we are touching the Divine and making it real in our world.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Painting: "Precious Light" by Chassidic artist Baruch Nachson.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
9 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Bernice Needham Sarnia, Ont/Can via chabadwestern.org January 20, 2015

Atoms People are more than a bunch of Atoms and G-d is more than a bunch of atoms. However your point is correct people and trees etc are all atoms. Yet there is a spiritual side to people and to the creator and it is within the spiritual side that G-d speaks to man, not the human side, not with a human voice but within the spiritual realm and that's why G-d himself imitates the conversation, people can't reach G-d just by talking. Check the Torah there for example it says and I quote "And G-d spoke to Abraham".. "And G-d spoke to Moses" ... "And G-d spoke to etc etc etc. And until G-d speaks to you, you will always have doubts about his existence. Reply

Steve E Abraham New York January 29, 2014

how could anyone get personal with Hashem We all admit Hashem is un-knowable. Supernatural. For someone to even suggest this is not only delusion, it goes against everything the Torah and Judaism stands for. We follow the Torah, because g-d told us to. There is no need for any other reason. Consider... g-d told you to do something, who would not listen? Why do you need a reason? If you start asking questions, you will be lead into the wrong path and to sin. Reply

Sam Castro Valley, CA July 3, 2011

Getting Personal With G-D To speak in a simple way about your article, I hear what you are saying and it is true. Reply

rhl September 2, 2010

blah yes this is all great and all true HOWEVER what about the little children on their own. they don't know how to get God to pay them any attention. they have their simple prayers, please God keep me safe, please G-d give us a good year etc YET their lives just keep rolling a mass of consequences. the only saving grace is a kind human. WHERE IS GOD? Why does G-d not help . God created the world with His words. So why does G-d not use his word to give good people better lives? Why must people suffer to bring glory to G-D?

its like living in a bad dream u just cant wake up from. Reply

Samir Santos, Brazil May 21, 2010

Really great...enthusiasmatic Reply

sue Kanata, ON October 27, 2008

Barthe-type Paradigms and Child Ed. Let's back up a little. There's a larger problem here. Why do we think of G-d the way we do? Because all of us are vulnerable to that typical trap of human perception: The paradigm trap.
...In the sense that an updated paradigm is an image and text, or a sentence created of both processes (Frederick Barthes- Semiotics) ...Your beautiful, cherishable article touches upon our cultural immune system, from which we derive well concepts, and starting during childhood ed...I wonder if your school of thought might extend itself to educators like the animator for Kabbalatoons, where God is described as a male? ..most of us are hung up on pre-ordained, antique imagery from a formerly male dominated world, and, in our conversations have been too lazy to effect clarifying descriptive terms other than He, like Great Matrix, DNA, or the One...your article is far more intrinsically an example of the type of mystical and intellectual process one admires in Kaballah and within Judaism. Reply

Andrea Lee Wynnewood, PA October 25, 2008

Getting Personal With G-d This was a really great explanation. I loved your analogies. They were compelling and easy to extrapolate. Thanks-I'm forwarding the article to others. Reply

Miriam Adahan October 25, 2008

Beautifiully written! Reply

Carmen Lambert Sydney, Australia March 22, 2006

Atoms Your mother is made up of a bunch of atoms but you still manage to have a relationship with her, so why can't G-d have a relationship with you? You're just a bunch of atoms to him too! If you can manage a relationship with a bunch of atoms then G-d certainly can too. Reply

Related Topics