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Parshat Ki Tavo

Look from Your holy dwelling- from the heavens?

At the end of the viduy ma'asrot (the confession recited when tithes are brought) the individual turns to God and makes a request:

"Hashkifa mi'maon kodshecha min hashamayim, u'barech et amcha et Yisrael."

"Look from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people, Israel."

Taken at face value this verse indicates that God dwells in the heavens ("the abode of your holiness"). Such a reference is not unusual, it fits well with the other verses throughout the Tanach that assume that God dwells in the heavens. When God says, "Erda na v'er-eh," "I will go down and see," it makes it sound as though He descends to the earth from above in order to visit. The verse "The heavens are My throne and the land is My footstool," expands the area of God's presence to include the earth, and yet it still assumes that He dwells in the heavens.

These descriptions assign a physical presence to God, and they are not abnormal for biblical language. The gemara in Massechet Chagiga takes this idea and expands upon it, describing the existence of seven heavens. In each of these heavens rests a different aspect of God's actions in this world- physical abundance, justice and righteousness, His messenger angels...- above all is God's throne of glory. (T.B. Massechet Chagiga 12b-13a). The aggada emphasizes that God is the source of the various forces that are at work throughout the creation: strength, kindness, justice, and knowledge. Some of them can be opposing forces at times, yet it is clear that all are forces that guide the world and provide our reality with structure.

This aggada speaks in terms of middot, characteristics or aspects, which are translated into sphirot, spheres or emanations. The main claim of this aggada is that the world is guided by forces from God and that these forces can be traced back to their sources. The description of the vast array of God's powers distributed throughout the different heavens mirrors the hierarchy of human needs and illustrates that they can only be fulfilled through these heavenly forces, some of which are higher and more exalted than others.

While the Tanach and Chazal did not hesitate to use precise descriptions borrowed from human language when they spoke about the act of creation, Rambam rejected all forms of Divine corporealization. He objected to any and all attempts to ascribe physical attributes to God or to describe the Shechinah in terms of physical space. He thought such things were a type of kefirah, heresy. One could assume that he also would have objected to the description of God dwelling on a throne, or the statement that God looks down on us from the heavens. (For more on the philosophy of Rambam on this subject see Guide to the Perplexed Book 1 Section 46.)

It seems that Rambam was not the first to maintain this belief; early traces can be seen in the beginnings of the Second Temple Period. The mishnah relates that Yochanan the High Priest enacted certain takanot:

"Yochanan Cohen Gadol dismissed the confessions of the tithe. He also eliminated the me'oririm [those who recited "wake up"] and the nokfim [knockers]. Until his day the hammer would be striking in Jerusalem. In his day no one had to ask about demai [produce of which it is unclear if tithes were already taken]." (Mishnah Maaser Sheini 5, 15)

One of his enctments was the cancellation of viduy maasrot which we began with, the one that ends with the request "Look from Your holy dwelling..." Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why it is he annulled the recitation of this viduy. One opinion is that in his time it was no longer possible to keep all aspects of the laws of tithes since not many Levites lived in the land in that period; since they had no one to give them to people could not honestly proclaim: "I did all of Your commandments that You commanded me" as part of the viduy. Another opinion is that the takana was enacted in order to cover for those who were not able to confess because they personally did not separate tithes in accordance with all the details.

Yet we could also understand that this takana is similar to another takana he made, "He also elimintaed the me'oririm  and the nokfim."

According to Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura the me'oririm are the Levites that used to recite a prayer that Yochanan the High Priest considered problematic because it corporealized and humanized God:

"He eliminated the meoririm- who were Levites that would say every day, 'Arise! Why do you sleep, God?' He said to them, 'Is it possible that God sleeps? So he stood up and eliminated them."

 According to this interpretation Yochanan the High Priest was opposed to attributing any kind of human activities to God, and certainly not actions that hint at weakness or neediness. Perhaps this is the reason he anulled the recitation of viduy maasrot. The confession relates to God almost as an equal, and Yochanan may have thought such language was innapropriatee for his generation, who had to contend with the sect of the Saducees.

Yet without the historic and cultural context it is unclear why it would be considered improper to imagine God in such a way. When we imagine God as a powerful young man, or with black curls, (as we do in anim zemirot on Shabbat) we do so as an expression of our religious belief which is aware of God's strength and power, energy and action. So we take advantage of aggadic language and call upon the image of a heroic, young man to express the idea that we are familiar with these traits because they also appear in this world.

Similarly, if we say that God dwells in the highest heavens or looks down on us from the sky, it's a way of expressing the religious concept that there is a "higher power" that is transcendant, that looks upon us from above and watches our every move. The sky is also the main source of our light, which addds another element to this imagery. God is "oro shel olam" "the light of the world." At times He is also covered in clouds, leaving our world in darkness.

According to this understanding there is little difference between corporeal descriptions of God, like those found in anim zmirot ("old age on a day of judgment, youth on a day of battle...") and the thirteen attributes of God that exemplify God, according to Rambam. Both point out different aspects of God, but they do it in different ways. The difference is stylistic, the language used;  the content remains true. But when this form of allegory and this style of language was forgotten and people started believing God was corporeal, then the language became invalid and its use forbidden.

Yet the imagery used by the Torah and Chazal have advantages over abstract language. Abstract language uses abstract concepts along with our intellect to understand God's actions, but these actions are concrete and precise. It is exactly those images that use our imagination which allow us to relate to God beyond the concepts of righteousness, justice, and kindness. The pictures that it paints ignite our imaginations and stir our souls, reinforcing our feelings of belonging.

God, look at us from the heavens, and bless Your People, Israel.



Please note:  All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please click here. You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns. 


Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781