Where are you closer to G‑d: on a serene mountaintop surrounded by the beauty of nature, or on a loud, dirty street corner in the middle of an inner city? It is true that you might feel closer to G‑d on the mountaintop, but even in the inner city we can we accomplish what G‑d expects from us.

The Sudden Pivot at Sinai

A curious affair took place at Sinai days before G‑d gave the Ten Commandments. G‑d told Moses that He would appear in the thick of a cloud and communicate the Ten Commandments through him, but the Jews begged to see G‑d directly. “One cannot compare instructions received from a king to instructions received through officials; we yearn to see our King.”1

G‑d granted this request and spoke to the Jews directly. The Jews, having just experienced what no other humans had ever seen or heard, approached Moses and said, “Behold, the L‑rd, our G‑d, has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we saw this day that G‑d speaks with man, yet [man] remains alive.”

But then—apparently alarmed by the G‑dly revelation—they continued, “So now, why should we die? . . . If we continue to hear the voice of the L‑rd, our G‑d, any more, we will die. For who is there of all flesh who heard the voice of the living G‑d speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You approach, and hear all that the L‑rd, our G‑d, will say, and you speak to us.”2

This sudden reversal is nothing short of astounding. They had asked to see and hear G‑d. They had witnessed that it is possible for man to hear G‑d and live. Why did they reverse their decision so soon, and beg to be spared? How could they even suggest that hearing G‑d directly might kill them, if they had just survived it? The greatest question of all is: why did G‑d validate this seemingly absurd request?

Supernatural Survival

The answer lies in a little-known Talmudic statement that when our ancestors heard the first and second commandments, their souls expired from the sheer intensity and sanctity of the moment. Seeing G‑d was an exhilarating and ecstatic experience, but it was also overwhelming. Their hearts melted with joy, their souls danced with glee, their spirits rose to unimaginable heights, their veins pulsed with passion; their entire beings glowed with the experience. So rapidly did their spirits ascend that their bodies could no longer contain them; amidst the rapture and radiance, their bodies gave out. They would have died right there, had G‑d not tenderly and lovingly restored them to life.3

Our ancestors discovered that it is possible to see G‑d and survive, but only if G‑d chooses to perform a miracle. Barring such supernatural intervention, they would not have made it through the experience. This was not the life they desired. They wanted to be fully alive in a physical sense, and to accomplish this they requested that G‑d speak to them through Moses. It would appear that our ancestors had a good point. After all, G‑d agreed with them.

In Real Life

G‑d’s purpose in descending to Sinai was to marry heaven and earth. This does not mean that He wanted humans to escape the clutches of earth to catch a glimpse of heaven. It means that He wanted us to seek and find G‑d as we live right here on earth.

When our ancestors begged to see G‑d, they had hoped to remain alive through natural means. Had this been possible, they would have returned from their experience eminently able to fulfill their mandate of marrying heaven and earth. But to their chagrin, they discovered that this was not easily accomplished. Their attempts to see G‑d would have ended in unmitigated disaster had G‑d not intervened. They were simply not capable of assimilating such intense holiness.

They therefore reconsidered and charted a new path. They would remain firmly rooted in physical life, but would receive their mandate and their spiritual strength, albeit in diluted form, through Moses.4

Who is Closer?

We now return to our original question. Are we necessarily closer to G‑d when we untangle ourselves from the shackles of distraction and find serenity in a quiet place? The answer is no. Disengaging from the physical to find G‑d is precisely what He does not want. G‑d wants us to seek Him within the rhythms of life. He wants us to seek Him out amid the distractions, tumult, questions and insecurities. He wants us to find Him in our puny little lives. For if G‑d cannot be found in the thicket, He is not the G‑d we seek.

He wants us to discover that the distractions and obsessions, weaknesses and failures are all created by Him, and that they mark the road to sublimation. He wants us to learn that somewhere in our roiling confusion lies a hidden but heavenly path that is the raison d’etre of existence; it is the epicenter of life, the pinnacle of the divine master plan and the purpose for which the world was created.

When are you closest to G‑d? When the real you wrestles with real life, addresses real concerns, confronts real issues, and despite it all succeeds in making space for G‑d. He does not want you to escape your reality to find Him; He wants to be found within your reality. He wants you, not the person you become when you escape yourself.5