Ha'azinu 2021: Metaphors for God

Metaphors are powerful tools in describing the indescribable, but what happens when they break, and cease conveying meaningful information?

As we near the end of the Torah, Moses recites poetry to the Israelites as parting words. The poem uses many natural metaphors comparing his prophetic message from God to morning dew, God to a great eagle, even God as a disappointed parent, or a warrior bent on justice. Moses provides a stream of images for the relationship between Israel and God that evoke aspects of nature and humanity that people of any background would understand. 

This is the brilliance in Moses’ poetry. He knew very well that he was seen by the Israelites as the only conduit to God - the Israelites proved this by abandoning God for a golden calf as soon as Moses had been gone from sight up Mt. Sinai- and that with his death, a crisis of faith may shake the community. So he used metaphors and images of the Israelites’ everyday lives to convey God’s presence to them. He wanted each of them to know that God was in every raindrop, God was in the way they treated their family, God was in the battles they fought, and even the battles they lost. And that the way to connect to God’s presence in all things was this covenant, the brit, the Torah that Moses revealed. 

As we have moved away from direct involvement with nature as part of our day to day life, many of these messages and images have become less powerful. The forces of nature no longer reign so strongly; they are no longer the primary focus of our attention. This happened long before our time, as we can see in even the High Holiday liturgy. Certainly natural metaphors still abound there, but the most clear and present metaphors for God are King and Parent. I’ve spoken with many individuals who find them troubling, or even downright alienating. In fact, I honestly believe the vast majority of folks who self-define as atheist do so primarily because of these metaphors, and the sense that people take the metaphors literally. But they were never meant to be literalized, and in contradistinction, we can see throughout our textual tradition the ways in which old metaphors died out and were replaced by new metaphors - yet somehow, today, we struggle with this process. 

Over 800 years ago, the medieval Rabbi Maimonides discussed this issue, writing: All such terminology is in accordance with the conception of humanity who can only recognize corporeal things, and so the words of the Torah are like human speech. It is a metaphor, so is all metaphorical...God has neither form nor image, but all is a vision of prophecy and a mirage, the absolute truth of the matter no human mind comprehends or is able to fathom. 

This gives us permission to, rather than reject the concept of God outright, locate God in metaphors from our daily lives that jibe with our actual experience in the world. We end up outgrowing metaphors all the time - ask a 13 year old if they know what it means for a “phone to ring off the hook,” why we say “hang up the phone,” or where the idea of “rewinding” music, TV or movies comes from. We still use these terms, but their core essence is no longer readily available to understand why we use them, and the meaning isn’t necessarily obvious. How much more important is this process, then, when it comes to something as difficult, deep, and integral as God?

God, at God’s core, as is conveyed in the name Yud heh vav heh revealed in the Torah, is all that is, all that was, and all that will be - God is the essential, ongoing unfolding of reality; the power guiding all growth, development, and change in our universe, as well as the creator of that process. What metaphors might work for you to encapsulate this large of a concept in something directly experienced? How can you find this almost indescribably lofty and complex entity in your own day to day life? What language works for you? 

May each of us, at this auspicious moment of the beginning of a new year, find our own ways to connect with the Divine Source, through nature, through relationships, through metaphor, and through each other. Shabbat shalom.