Friday, July 04, 2008

God: Blessing and Blessed

Many Jewish prayers begin with the phrase Baruch Atah Adonai...Literally, that's "Blessed are You, O Lord..." Blessed by whom? Ever since Parmenides, western philosophic theology has hated the idea that God is not self-sufficient. Yet the God of Israel is frequently portrayed as in need of humanity's partnership. It is implicit throughout the Bible, where God's anger over humanity's disloyalty betrays an anxiety that He might, in fact, lose us.

[Forgetful Angel, by Paul Klee]

While God in Rabbinic literature places less emphasis on God's frustration, it is at times even more forthright in describing God as less than wholly autonomous. At the very least, it seems, God needs our encouragement:

It was taught as Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha says: "I once entered the innermost part of the Temple to offer incense and saw Akatriel-YaH, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: 'Ishmael, My son, bless Me [barcheini]!' I replied: 'May it beYour will that Your compassion overcome Your anger. May Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes. May You deal with Your children compassionately. May You not judge us solely with strict justice!' And God nodded to me." (Berakhot 7a).

According to the commentary that follows this maaseh, we learn from this that the blessing of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly. If God says that She wants to be blessed by "mere mortals," one might well ask, who am I to intervene on behalf of God? But on the other hand, who am I to argue with a divine request? To me, this is a great example of rabbinic Judaism's "audacious humility" (or is it "humble audacity"?) -- we recognize our own independent power to improve upon God's creation and even to "improve" God, even if it is achieved, paradoxically, by submitting ourselves to God's will.

But the theme of the interdependence of God and man is portrayed in an even more daring maaseh. In this one, Moses ascends to heaven to receive the Torah, only to find God feeling a little overwhelmed by the business of keeping up with the creation She has unleashed:

Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi also said: When Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy Blessed One tying crowns on the letters. He said to him, "Is there not 'Peace' in your town [won't people even wish me well]?" He answered, "Shall a servant offer a greeting of 'Peace!' to his master?" He said, "Yet you should help Me." Immediately he cried out to Him And now may the power of the Lord be magnified, as You have spoken (Numbers 14:17) (Shabbat 89a)

This is a particularly clever story, because the darshan builds it's startling premise around a verse from the Torah in which Moses offers his verbal encouragement to God, thereby establishing that God's need for us is actually attested to in the central revelation of our tradition. But again, it appears we can best assist God's by heeding to His will, and even more so if we deploy God's own words to sustain Him and His purpose.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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