What is Gd? Can you define Gd? Can you describe Gd? Do you remember the story of rabbi who visited a preschool class? He went around the room asking what each child was drawing with their crayons. He came to an adorable little girl who said she was drawing a picture of Gd. The rabbi then gently told the little girl that no one can see Gd and no one can know what He really looks like. The little girl then looks up at the rabbi with a gleam in the corner of her eye and says, “Now they will!”
It’s hard to define Gd. One of the shortest and simplest definitions of Gd is given by Moses in today’s Torah reading (Deut. 10:17): ki Hashem Elokechem, “For the Lrd your Gd is,” haEyl hagadol, hagibor v’hanora, “The Gd, the great, mighty and the awesome Gd.”
Do you recognize that phrase: haEyl hagadol, hagibor v’hanora? O course you do, because it’s found in the 1st paragraph of the Amida—one of our 2 most important prayers. It’s actually the only words that define Gd in the whole long prayer. In the remaining paragraphs of the Amidah we only speak of what Gd does—that He heals the sick, blesses the crops, grants humans wisdom and peace, etc. The only words in the Amida that try to describe what Gd is are these: haEyl hagadol hagibor v’hanora, “The Gd, the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome.” And so when we recite the Amida, we should say these words with special focus and intensity to try to feel the presence of Gd as embodied in these attributes.
Moses’ description of Gd begins with the word HaEyl. Ha means, “the” and Eyl is the generic Hebrew word for Gd. Literally, however, eyl means “power,” and its longer plural form, Elohim, which we use for Gd, literally means, “These Powers.” The Torah also uses Elohim to refer to judges because judges have the “power” to decide the fate of those before them. As the source of all power in the world, Gd as Elohim then refers to Gd’s attribute of strict justice. It’s also the name of Gd used in the creation story, and hence it also denotes Gd as revealed in nature. Both strict justice and nature—as I’ve pointed out many times—can seem cruel especially when tragedy strikes. The Shema—the other of our 2 main prayers—comes to teach us that underneath the hardships in our lives is Gd’s compassion and that Elohim—the Gd of strict justice and nature Who can seem cruel—is really Hashem Echad, One Compassionate Gd. Even in the face of tragedy like floods and storms and illness, we find Gd’s love in helping us to get through the hard times and in the life lessons we learn from it.
However, the short form for the word Gd, Eyl, used by Moses and repeated in the Amida here, also expresses Gd’s compassion, as we see when Gd reveals His attributes of mercy to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He uses the short form and describes Himself as: Eyl Rachum v’Chanun, “Gd, Merciful and Gracious.” So Moses here is telling us that Gd’s compassion is defined by His greatness, might and awesomeness. But what’s so compassionate about greatness, might and awe?
Let’s take the 1st attribute, HaGadol, “The Greatest!” It’s interesting that in Western culture, when we call someone “great” like Alexander the Great, or Peter the Great or Charlemagne which means “Charles the Great,” it’s an indication of one’s power to conquer. When Moses calls Gd “great” he speaks not so much of His physical might…but of His chesed, His kindness—that Gd cares about the widow and the orphan and loves the stranger and provides for their needs. How fortunate we are that Gd so great should care or even pay any attention to us. Abraham’s great quality—according to our tradition—was that he tried to emulate Gd by continually displaying chesed, loving-kindness to everyone. As prominent a person as he was, he was not only approachable, he would run to care for even the poorest and most needy; and we, the children of Abraham should do so as well.
Gibor is might and strength, but it’s not a physical strength. When speaking of physical strength in classic Hebrew we use the word koach. Isaac is the paradigm of strength in Kabbalah even though he fights no wars like Abraham or threatening strangers like Jacob. In fact, Isaac’s strength lies in his ability to withhold his urge to confront and retaliate when provoked. He avoids conflict and maintains his Gdliness even in hostile environments. The Talmud (Avot 4:1) asks: Eyzehu gibor, “Who is a gibor, who is mighty?” Hakoveysh et yitzro, “He who conquers his desires/urges.”
The greatest strength of Gd is shown not when He destroys His enemies or rains plagues upon the Egyptians. Although that is truly an amazing demonstration of Gd’s might, it doesn’t compare to the might of Gd when He relaxes His control over us and allows us to exercise our free will—even in when we defy Him. Gd’s greatest strength is revealed when He withholds punishment and forgives. Such is the compassion shown by Gd’s might. And so when we say the word gibor in this prayer, we should focus on Gd’s might which has no limit—especially His power to grant us free will and to forgive. And as we do so, we should resolve to show restraint and forgive others when we are provoked.
And finally, the last of the 3 attributes Moses uses to describe Gd is Nora, “awesome.” Only the contemplation of Gd can induce such an intense state of wonder, joy and fear—all at once. It’s the experience of Jacob when he awoke from his amazing dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven and declared: Ma nora hamakom hazeh, “How awesome is this place!” When we say Nora in this prayer, we should feel, “How awesome is it to stand before Gd in prayer!” How compassionate of Gd to allow us to feel His presence and, thereby, His awesomeness in our prayers.
The 1st paragraph of the Amida begins by mentioning the 3 patriarchs: Elohey Avraham, Elohey Yitzchak, veyElohey Yaakov. It immediately follows with Moses’ description of Gd and Gd’s attributes that highlight the attributes of the patriarchs. The message is that just as the patriarchs sought to emulate Gd’s main attributes of kindness, inner strength and awe, so should we. If we want to aspire to true greatness and might, if we want to inspire awe in others, then we need to show more and more love and caring despite how inconvenient it may be and despite our busy schedules. That’s why these are the words Moses uses to describe Gd and why the rabbi’s used them in our most important prayer.
In the beginning of today’s Torah reading (Deut. 7:21) Moses tells us, Ki Hashem Elokecha b’kirbecha, which is often translated as, “For Hashem your Gd is among you.” But b’kirbecha more accurately means, “within you.” When we recite the words, haEyl hagadol, hagibor v’hanora, “The Gd, The Greatest, The Mightiest, and The most Awesome, we can feel it resonate within us because Gd is within us. And when we behave in a Gdly manner with love and kindness, with restraint and forgiveness, and with awe in seeing the image of Gd in everyone, we can feel it because Gd is within us. Moses (Deut 10:16) implores us just before telling us Gd’s attributes, Umaltem eyt orlat l’vavchem, “circumcise the barriers—the hardness—of your hearts” and allow the part of Gd that He put within you to come out. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis