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True Knowledge

There’s a very curious moment at the very beginning of the Torah reading this week. God says to Moses, “Ani Adonai,” “I am God—[YHVH],” “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, “ “U’shmi Adonai lo nodati lahem,” “But my [real] name, YHVH, I did not make known to them.” Strange, isn’t it? Such great men as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they didn’t even know God’s real name: YHVH! Let’s leave aside the problematics of the fact that the name, YHVH DOES appear in the book of Genesis many times. Clearly, this is a very deep moment of revelation of God’s essence to Moses. So, we must ask, what is this amazing, ineffable name YHVH, and why is it only being revealed officially now, in the book of Exodus?

The midrash and our ancient rabbis give us a wealth of explanations to our question: that the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was El Shaddai, which means, ‘The Powerful God:’ they witnessed his strength in their own lives. Others say that the word “Shaddai” is related to the word “Shaddayim,” which means ‘breasts,’ and God was a like a nursing mother to them, nursing the progenitors of the Jewish people in their spiritual infancy. The God of Genesis, say the sages, was also known as Elohim—the God of nature and natural forces and powers, a God who judges and sets limits. But now, this God, this YHVH whom we really meet in the book of Exodus, this is an entirely new face of God whom we meet: this YHVH is the God of rachamim: of compassion: a God who not only works wonders in the life of individuals. YHVH is now a God who loves and redeems a whole nation! This God, YHVH is so powerful in Divine Compassion, that if you look at the succeeding verses in the Torah reading, you see just how wondrously YHVH works: four verbs appear in quick succession as YHVH describes what He is about to do: “V’hotzeiti etchem,” I will free you from your burdens; “V’hitzalti etchem,” I will deliver you from bondage; “v’ga’alti etchem” I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; “v’lakachti etchem,” I will take you to be My People. This YHVH is a God who acts, with love, in History! And, of course, as the great story of the Exodus from Egypt unfolds, God carries out these very things, and this becomes the basis of faith for the Jewish people in God for all time to come. Indeed, our rabbis teach us, now that we have experienced this YHVH, this God of Compassion who acted for our Freedom, how could we NOT believe in God for all time, for all generations?...

Well, of course, in our day and age, not everybody believes in God, even after they read this great story of the Exodus. It would seem that our ancient rabbis couldn’t foresee the advent of modernity and post-modernity, the rise of Reason and critical thinking, of scholarly investigation, of deconstructing sacred texts, of modern alienation from a redeeming God after wars and the Holocaust and terrorism. In our time, agnosticism and atheism are have a voice that fascinates and captivates our imagination. Richard Dawkins, author of the “The God Delusion” recently wrote a piece in the Huffington Post called “Why there almost certainly is no God;” that the God “who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, wreaks miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare and raises you from the dead,” is clearly debunked in our modern, intellectually honest age. And while you or I may not be so brazen to debunk God so sweepingly, for so many Jews today, a simple piety in the Biblical God is not something many of us are comfortable with. So how can we find our way back? Do we even want to find our way back to a simple, devoted belief in God? I think we do. I think that our souls need that faith in a God as deeply as our bodies need sustenance to go from day to day. I think that this moment in the Torah, when God’s name YHVH is revealed—this is, more than just a name. It’s a sign post, a direction that points us to Divinity in our lives, no matter what age we live in, no matter how many reasons we may have to doubt…

The Sfat Emet, a great Hasidic commentary, pointed out something brilliant about our passage in the Torah: God says ‘U’shmi YHVH lo nodati lahem,” “And my name, YHVH, I did not make KNOWN to them” [to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob]. The Sfat Emet explains that the key word is “nodati,” which means ‘I made known.’ The the word Nodati is related to the word “Da’at,” which means ‘Knowledge.’ (Sfat Emet 2:40) If you want to understand the meaning of the ineffable Name of God, of YHVH, you have to understand the meaning of the word Da’at, of Knowledge itself. The English word, ‘Knowledge’ is a very broad term, and it has many meanings. Really, it’s too vague a word. Da’at is the most specific and deepest kind of knowedge there is. I will try to explain with examples: I know that the world is round. How do I know? Have I ever gone into space? No, but I’ve seen pictures. Have I travelled personally from one spot in a straight line, only to come back to where I started? No, but I know enough about Christopher Columbus and enough science to know that the world is round. Could I be wrong that the world is flat? Well, there’s a infinitesimal chance that I’m wrong, I suppose. So that knowledge is not absolute. But how about this statement: I know that I love my children. Can anything in this universe ever shake me of that knowledge. No. No way. This I know! This kind of deepest knowing is what we mean when we say Da’at.

A story is told that when Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev returned home after a lengthy journey from his first visit to his rebbe, Reb Schmelke of Nikolsburg, Levi Yitzchak’s father-in-law said to him, “So, Levi Yitzchak, what did you learn from your great Rebbe that you could not learn right here at home?”

“I learned that there is a Creator of the universe,” Reb Levi Yitzchak replied. “And for this you had to travel all the way to Nikolsburg?” said his father-in-law. His father-in-law called to a nearby peasant woman and asked her, “So, what do you say, young lady? Is there a Creator of the universe?” “Of course!” She said, and went on cleaning the house. “Nu?” Reb Levi Yitzchak’s father-in-law said, feeling very satisfied. Reb Levi Yitzchak responded to him: “She says, I know.” [i] And that’s the end of the story…

That peasant woman says that of course there’s a God because she heard all about God, and, being the simple typology of a character that she is, she just accepted that there is a God. Reb Levi Yitzchak learned something that he could only learn on his great journey to faraway Nikolsburg: only in the presence of his Rebbe, his teacher, in his loving, wise presence, could he find that deepest kind of Knowledge, a Knowing, a Da’at, an unshakable experience of the Divine that only comes from living life itself. This, according to the Sfat Emet, was the Da’at that only Moses and Israelites, after 400 years of Slavery in Egypt, were ready to come into a deep knowledge of. Only through the experience of slavery itself, could they truly appreciate what it means to be freed, delivered, Redeemed, and Taken out of bondage by God, thereby knowing a totally new Face of God: YHVH, a God of compassion for a people.

The wisdom of this moment in the Torah, is perhaps the most critical wisdom that we need in our time of so much doubt and confusion. Richard Dawkins and so many who doubt and reject the God of the Bible, and so many of us—we’re all reacting to the mindless piety of that peasant woman in the story. We reject that kind of simple-minded faith in a God that we read about in an ancient story called the Bible. But the great brilliance and irony of that story, is that Richard Dawkins and you and I, in all our immense intellectual abilities and academic learning and critical reasoning, are actually no different from that peasant woman. We live in a society, in a world that defines ‘knowledge’ ONLY as intellectual knowledge! We accept that the world is round based on evidence and reason. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course! But the deeper kind of Knowledge, Da’at, we don’t give equal credence to! Isn’t that strange?

The over-arching ethos of our modern world is that the only Knowledge that is “true,” and “real” is that which can be put on a map, or charted on a graph, or indicated on a scale. In other words, that which is concrete and verifiable with scientific investigation—that Knowledge is all that is credible. The deeper Knowledge of Da’at, the deepest, most unshakable Knowledge of the heart is irrational, not-verifiable. While it may be moving, it’s not as “real” as scientific knowledge. And besides, it’s the fundamentalists, the bible-pounders, the terrorists who are convinced that they “know” the Truth, aren’t they, and they want to impose it on us? That kind of Knowledge is dangerous, we reason! But think again…

The Baal Shem Tov, perhaps one of the most Enlightened rebbes ever to walk the earth, once famously said, “When I reach a high rung of knowledge (da’at), I know that not a single letter of the teachings is within me, and that I have not taken a single step in the service of God.” [ii]What did he mean? How could such an advanced soul say that he knows nothing, and has done nothing? What he’s showing us is what Da’at really is all about: to really Know the Knowledge of the heart is to know that we don’t know anything. In other words, intellectual knowledge, book learning, inferences based on evidence are all fine and good, but they’re NOT the be all, end all of Knowledge. What the Baal Shem Tov is saying is that anyone who claims to know the Truth, is a liar! He or she is deluding himself or herself! The fundamentalist who “knows” what God wants is no different than the militant Atheist who “knows” that there is no God—they’re both making exactly the same kind of mistake! They’re both the chambermaid who says, but doesn’t know! They’re both making inferences from books, from teachings, from evidence. Those are important sources of intellectual knowledge, but if we only stop there and don’t go deeper, then we’re like people who memorize the menu, but never taste the meal.

In our age, we are all so cut off from real Da’at, from this deepest Knowledge. No wonder it’s so easy for people to reject God. They’re rejecting El Shaddai, the powerful big God in the sky of the ancient imagination. Perhaps they’re even rejecting Elohim, a personal God who seems to have to the power to manipulate nature. But how could any of us, if we really look deep into our heart of hearts and soul of souls ever reject YHVH, this overwhelming Love and Compassion that miraculously, mysteriously, emerges and sustains us moment to moment, that contains the knowledge of all the secrets and miracles of the universe, of all that is—a knowing that is so much more than any of us, that it totally humbles us before it’s Awesome Loving Presence. That kind of Knowledge is built into our matrix, our spiritual DNA, and most of us just haven’t found a way to acknowledge this deepest Truth that defies all reason. That kind of Da’at, of Knowledge is Real! It is the most Real kind of Knowledge there is, in fact. May we embracew this Da’at, this knowledge of the heart and knowledge of the spirit in our lives. May we come to understand that th is kind of Knowledge, while defying reason, is not simplistic nor will it lead us to fundamentalism. Rather, this knowledge can exist in harmony with all intellectual reason and critical doubt—in fact, Da’at ennobles all intellectual knowledge that we can amass. May we come to see that only with Da’at, can we approach all intellectual knowledge with Wisdom, and use what we know for good, for compassion, for justice and for peace. May we all find this Da’at of YHVH, may this Ultimate Knowledge transform our hearts and transform the world.

[i] Adapted from Hasidic Tales, Translated and Edited by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, 2004, p. 119

[ii] Everyday Miracles, Howard W. Polsky and Yaella Wozner, 1989, p. 181.


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