The State of Mind to Know God

Some say God is best experienced in suffering, but Moses learns that the Israelites can truly know God only when they are freed.

In an Introduction to Judaism class, a university student frequently learns about "Jewish concepts of God." This is in marked contrast with the way a Jewish child learns about God, experientially and concretely. While the university student might learn that "the God of the Jews is one," and write the word "monotheistic" in a notebook, the child might sing the Sh'ma, the central prayer of Jewish faith--"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one"--each night alongside parents from toddlerhood to the age of six or seven, when it can be sung alone, without prodding.

Who knows the God of the Jews? The university student who understands the concept academically, in light of other cultures' claims? Or is it the child, who hasn't a clue about the ingenuity of monotheism, but whose world is predicated upon a thickly felt sense that this one God is in charge of the child's universe, or at the very least, in charge of the fears of the night? If we were to conclude that the child's experiential knowing has more depth than the student's conceptual knowing, we are left wondering if one can ever come to encounter God as an adult.


In the first lines of Va'eyra (Exodus 2: 2-13), we see God attempting to teach Moses about God. This is not Moses' first lesson. In Exodus 3, God speaks to Moses in the burning bush and commands him to deliver God's demands to Pharaoh. Who is this God who is introduced? It is God who knew and was known by Moses' forefathers, God who sees the affliction of the Israelites and intends to deliver them.

Modest Moses is concerned initially that he is not the one for the awesome job. But he also has a legitimate anxiety attack: What will happen when I attempt to explain to the Israelites that the God of their fathers has sent me? What will happen when they ask me for God's name? How can you expect me to teach a suffering people about God?

This is what you should do, God says plainly and calmly. Just tell them what I told you: I'm God of your forefathers; I remembered you and I will redeem you. And if that is not sufficient, God tutors Moses in the use of a magic rod with which he can work "signs and wonders" that might be more convincing to the people than words. "And the people believed him," we learn in Exodus 4:31.

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