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What Is G‑d?

What Is G‑d?

The Not-thing

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Question

Somewhere along the way, I misplaced G‑d. The other day I realized that I hadn't seen G‑d in quite a while--probably not since childhood. And it's not just that I can't find G‑d--I also seem to have lost my sense of what G‑d is... Why did this happen? If I had Him when I was a child, why shouldn't I have Him now?

Answer

You've got one clue, but you missed the other. It has to do with your language. Call it "thing-fixation."

That's probably the main disaster of your childhood --not being weaned, not leaving behind pampers for underpants, not sitting in a desk in first grade --but when you learned about things.

The entire world has been reduced in our minds to a mass junkyard of thingy stuff. So even G‑d gets defined as a thing... I don't mean, "you learned about things of the world." I mean, you learned the idea of things. You learned that the world is made of stuff, objects, material goomp that's just "out there". Later in life, you started running after those things, accumulating them, amassing more and more mounds of things to fill your home, your backyard and your driveway. By now, the entire world has been reduced in your mind to nothing but a mass junkyard of thingy stuff. So even G‑d gets defined as a thing --and you're trying to find the place where He fits. Because, after all, all things fit in places.

When you woke up to life as a small child, it wasn't like that. There were no things. There was just the experience of being. Of sensing, of living, of breathing and doing. Screaming, nursing, burping. Those were all real. Those are life. Things are not real. Things are fiction. They don't exist. We made them up.

The Birth of Thinginess

How did things come to be? Here's my take on it.

In the beginning, there were no things. All of humankind knew life as does a small child, even as they grew older and wiser. But then someone got it into his head to draw pictures of all the stuff he had. Eventually, pictures became glyphs, a nifty device for esoteric communication. Glyph-lovers--such as the cult-priests of ancient Egypt--created thousands of glyphs to represent all the stuff Pharaoh was accumulating. Soon the idea seeped into the spoken language, as well: the idea of a "thing"--a static snapshot of a distinct whateveritis in a frozen moment of time. Stuff was born. And the world was never again the same.

In Hebrew, verbs rule Evidence? Because in ancient, biblical Hebrew, there is no word for stuff. Or thing. Or object or anything similar. In raw, primal Hebrew, you don't say, "Hey, where's that thing I put over here?" You say, "Where is the desired (chefetz) that I put here?" You don't say, "What's that thing?" --you say, "What's that word?" That's the closest you can get to the idea of thing: a word. All of reality is made of words. Look in the creation story: The whole of heaven and earth is nothing but words.

In languages like English, nouns are the masters and verbs are their slaves, with adjectives and associated forms dancing about to serve them. In Hebrew, verbs rule. Big, little, wise, foolish, king, priest, eye, ear--all of these sound like things, but in Hebrew they are forms of verbs. In fact, according to Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (1560?-1630), author of the classic Shnei Luchot HaBrit, everything in Hebrew is really a verb. Everything is an event, a happening, a process --flowing, moving, never static. Just like when you were a small child.1

In Hebrew, there is not even a present-tense. There are participles, but the idea of a present tense only arose later. In real Hebrew, nothing ever is--all is movement.

That fits, because Hebrew was not written in glyphs. Hebrew was the first language we know of to be written with symbols that represent sounds, not things. With the Hebrew alphabet--the mother of all alphabets--you don't see things, you see sounds. Even the process of reading is different: when you read glyphs, the order doesn't matter so much. You just sort of look and everything is there. Even modern Chinese glyphs can be written in any direction. With an alphabet, sequence is everything. Nothing has meaning standing on its own. Everything is in the flow.

Get The Flow

Things are not real. Things are fiction. They don't exist. We made them up. The flow is real. Things are not real. Ask a physicist: the more we examine stuff--what they call matter--we see that it's not there. All that's really there is events: waves, vibrations, fields of energy. Life is a concert, not a museum.

Think of writing music, as opposed to painting a portrait. The portrait artist stands back and beholds his art, his still rendition of a frozen moment--and he beholds it all at once. Then he politely asks his model to please return to the pose of that which has now become the prime reality, the portrait. A portrait of that which is but never was.

A composer of music cannot do this. You can't freeze a moment of music--it vanishes as soon as you attempt to do such. Like the fictional stuff they call matter: Frozen to absolute zero, without energy, without movement, it no longer exists. Because, in truth, all that exists is the flow of being.

The Name

The flow of being: now you have found G‑d The flow of being: now you have found G‑d. In fact, in Hebrew, that's His name. G‑d's name is a series of four letters that express all forms of the verb of all verbs, the verb to be: is, was, being, will be, about to be, causing to be, should be --all of these are in those four letters of G‑d's name. As G‑d told Moses when he asked for His name, "I will be that which I will be."

In our modern languages that doesn't work. We quickly slip into the trap of thingness again. Who is G‑d? We answer, "He is One who was, is and will be."

There we go with the "thing that is" business again. No, G‑d is not a thing that is or was or will be. G‑d is isness itself. Oy! The frustration of the language. We need new words: Ising. Isness. Isingness. Isifying. Isifier. In Hebrew you can conjugate the verb to be in all these ways and more. Perhaps in English one day we will do the same. Until then, we are like artists using pastels to imitate Rembrandt; like musicians trying to play middle-eastern strains in tempered C Major.

And the proof: We ask questions that make sense only in English, but in Hebrew are plainly absurd. Such as, "Does G‑d exist?" In Hebrew, that's a tautology, somewhat the equivalent of "Does existence exist?"

There is no need to "believe" in this G‑d--if you know what we are talking about, you just know. You will know, also, that there is nothing else but this G‑d--what is there that stands outside isness?

Think simple: You wake up in the morning and, even before coffee, there is As for faith and belief, those are reserved for greater things. Like believing that this great Isness that isifies all that ises cares, knows, has compassion, can be related to. In other words, saying that reality is a caring experience. Which reduces to saying that compassion is real, purpose is real, life is real. That's something you have to believe. But G‑d's existence--like most ideas that men argue about--that's just a matter of semantics.

Think simple: You wake up in the morning and, even before coffee, there is. Reality. Existence. Not "the things that exist" but existence itself. The flow. The infinite flow of light and energy. Of being, of existence. Of is. Think of all that flow of isingness all in a single, perfectly simple point. Get into it, commune with it, speak to it, become one with it --that is G‑d.

Footnotes
1.
Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Toldot Adam, Bayit Acharon 12.
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 .
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
© 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.
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Benzion Waldman Millburn, NJ January 3, 2017

Only Moschiach is spiritually and mentally strong enough to conceptualize G-d. Mankind is not otherwise capable of understanding (much less quantifying) Ha'Shem. Ha'Shem is all powerful and all knowing. With all due respect, your above attempted explanation is futile. Reply

Phil Fort Hood September 11, 2015

The Greek alphabet is so called because its first two letters are alpha and beta.

The Roman alphabet, as well as the Russian, German, and English alphabets, are based on the Greek alphabet.

The Greek alphabet is based on the Phoenecian alphabet, which is basically he same as the old Hebrew alefbet.

All the alphabets in the western world are based on the Greek alphabet, which goes back to the equivalent of the old Hebrew alefbet (so called because its first two letters are alef and bet). In fact, the names of the Greek letters have no meaning in Greek, but are meaningful in Hebrew. Alef means Ox. Bet means House. Gimel means Camel. Dalet means Door. And so on.

I do not know of any alphabet or similar system in use today which is based on the Ugaritic cuneiform. Do you? Strictly speaking, the Ugaritic names of the first two letters are not "alpha" and "beta," so, technically, the Ugaritic writing system, while excellent and ancient, is not an "alphabet". Reply

Anonymous New Mexico August 18, 2015

yes, God exists; my time here is up, and some time soon, i will go to be with God. there is a much better place when your end comes, you see glimpses of it.the closer you get, you know its your time. which is why you sense glimpses of it.---but its good because many older people know when it comes time to see God. ask any senior, many of them know iits closer. He's telling you, that its wonderful, and the time is closer.. thank you. Reply

Tzvi Freeman August 14, 2015

According to Maimonides in his "Guide For the Perplexed," this is just what the Psalmist was answering when he said, "Does the One who plants the ear not hear? The One who forms the eye does not see?"

In other words, if hearing, seeing, feeling and consciousness extend out from Existence, it must be that these are in the capacity of Existence as well.

That's the answer in a nutshell. But this is the subject of many great works, especially the Moreh Nevuchim and Shaar Hayichud V'Ha-Emunah.

You may also want to see this question addressed in "Children of the Universe" . Also "Is G-d an It, an I, or a Nothing?" Reply

Anonymous August 14, 2015

I need to ask, if G-d is existence itself, then how could a covenant be reached with such? How could such give commandments at Sinai? If all talk of G-d's attributes are metaphors, e.g., the hand, the outstretched arm, etc., then to speak of G-d's covenant with Israel strains credulity. Even G-d as Creator cannot be sustained, if G-d is pure existence. Any thoughts on this minor subject? Reply

Devon Tickson Vancouver July 19, 2015

Umm, phoenician is the first known alphabet

I have nothing against the rest of your article though. Reply

Debra Little Walker May 31, 2015

Dear RabbibTsvi:
This is the most awesome idea of God that I've ever come across. Thank You so much. I've saved this writing that I might read it agai . Reply

FGA March 2, 2015

Please answer the question straight. Reply

Kate Gladstone Albany, NY February 25, 2015

Actually, Anne, the Hebrew alphabet in any form is several centuries younger than the Ugaritic alphabet. Google "Ugaritic alphabet" for facts. Reply

Susan Browne February 13, 2015

Hebrew ... Physics ... Music and the Is-ness of G-d! Awesome! May I have the time and insight to understand them all! Reply

Ann Cleveland November 16, 2014

Rabbi Tzvi did not say Hebrew was written in syllables, because it was not written in syllables.
He did say it was written in symbols that represent sounds.
It has a letter Bet for the "b" sound.
It does not have a "ba" plus a "be" plus a "bi" plus a "bo" plus a "bu".
That is what occurs in languages written with syllabic symbols. The result is that each consonant has perhaps five variants, one for every possible vowel which could follow it.

But Hebrew only has 22 letters.

In the case of the letter bet, it has only the general "b" sound, which could combine with any vowel.

So Hebrew is not written with syllabic symbols. That would require a literate person to learn dozens of symbols. Too many. Too complicated. Hebrew symbols are simple.
They are alphabetic. There are only 22.
But of course the first two letters are not alpha and beta. They are alef and bet.
So I should say with alef-betic symbols.
And Hebrew is the first to reduce the number of symbols in this way. Reply

Eric Cummer Toronto November 14, 2014

History is fascinating; religious history is awesome. Eric C, Toronto. Reply

Anonymous Monsey November 12, 2014

This was extremely powerful and helpful.
Thank you! Reply

Maria Colorado October 14, 2014

Wow. Again. That is really good stuff. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous Pasadena, CA September 28, 2014

B"H The original form of Hebrew (the oldest thus far) is the 'Mesa script. It is similar to Phoenician. I also noticed that in the earlier epic of Gilgamesh, one of the characters, a boat builder, worshiped, the monotheistic G-d, Eyah. This is the same pronunciation which Moshe heard from the burning bush. Then, on a pillar in the Temple of Amenophis IV (not Ahkenaten, much earlier), there is a line that states, "Bedouins of Yahweh". It is a record of visitors who had received audience with the pharaoh, who lived during the lifetime of the Patriarch Avraham. By these, we now know that the names recorded in Torah were in fact known in the area of Chaldea, and through them the entire Mesopotamian region, all the way down to Egypt, BEFORE Moshe was born. What is sinful is that much of man's history has been lost by more recent wars. It isn't the words themselves, but the meanings of these names that have been all but lost. But I do trust the Kohenim in knowing the truth on Yom Kippur Reply

Anonymous September 21, 2014

Fascinating article. Little bit of correction: Hebrew was not the first language written with syllables instead of glyphs. We don't actually know the first one (cuneiform and Egyptian script both had syllabary functions in some situations, and there are scripts from earlier which have never been deciphered and we don't know how they operated) but the first one to gain widespread use was Phoenician abjad (which the Hebrew aleph-bet comes from). I don't want to seem rude, I just have this thing where I can't pass up a correction on stuff like that. I probably am rude. Sorry. Reply

Rajiv Rajan Pune India July 23, 2014

Rabbi, I have a question.. I read in Exodus that the Name G d revealed to Moses meantt 'I will prove to be'. The Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had not had The Name revealed to them. Yet they had His is-ness. Is it possible to come to experience His presence without Him revealing His name personally? Thank you. Of course, in all simplicity, you will ask how does one know its Him if one doesn't have a name. Would a rose by another name lose its is-ness or rose-ness? :-) Thank you. It just seems so possible that He may have given different names to people at different times to His purpose without changing His essence. His meaning has not changed. He will still prove to be! Please don't think me to be impertinent. Reply

Chaim Los Altos July 21, 2014

I was taught that "everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven".
That is, the ONLY area where we have choice is in whether to obey Gd or to sin.
We think we are making other choices, such as how to make a living, or what to wear today, but all those things are predetermined, including our financial success or our inability to make a living. Our ONLY area of free choice is in the moral dimension.
This means, Do not feel ashamed of career failure or any other failure. ONLY of moral failure, for THAT is the area where it is completely up to US as individuals and as communities. Reply

Rajiv Rajan Pune India July 9, 2014

Thank you Scotty. May it go well! Found a treasure trove in the article 'why Jews and Greeks can't get along'. Lovely humor as well.. Reply

Scotty Cleveland July 3, 2014

Rajiv and Gregory

Hang in there~! Reply

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