Beliefnet
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.

What do we make of Moses' second lesson on the nature of God? While some students of biblical texts may see this second lesson as an erroneous repetition of the first, an instance of scribal error, it is possible to consider the repeated encounter in another way, one that gives us insight into the nature of auspicious and inauspicious times for divine encounter.

Moses does his part, relating to the Israelites the introduction to God as he was instructed. But they have heard of God's promises before, and they have seen no tangible results, only talk. Not surprisingly, they do not "hearken" to Moses because of their "impatience of spirit," a consequence of their cruelbondage.

One might well ask: Can a person, even one who is not a slave, know God if the information is acquired second-hand, from a messenger? One might ask, Can one ever have trust in a God who makes a covenant and then needs to "remember" that covenant when memory is jogged by the people's outcry? Can one trust a God who cannot intuit the sufferings of the Israelites without hearing their anguish? How can one trust a God who promises to free a people from a cruel human ruler, but seems to fail, even after plagues of blood, frogs, lice, evil beasts, cattle plague, boils, and the rest?

In such a collective mindset, it is logical to conclude that the God who was once encountered is now absent or ineffective, a remote ancestral memory.

It is hard to learn about God when one is suffering. I don't mean garden-variety sadness or a case of the flu: mean epic-scale, off the charts suffering. The kind of suffering that leaves you with "impatience of spirit."

Many people are of the attitude that it's only when you know true suffering that you really can encounter God. But I do not think that illness, pain, and intense personal loss come with the consolation prize of knowledge of God. When one suffers "impatience of spirit," God can feel intensely absent and all claims for God's hidden presence can sound like wishful thinking.

Interestingly enough, God understands that the suffering soul cannot know God. When Moses frets, "If the children of Israel can't hear me when I speak of God, how on earth can I expect Pharaoh to listen?" Just do it, God says, and bring Aaron along to help. After the people are saved, after the "impatience of spirit" is but a memory: only then will they--or more likely, their children--be in a state of mind to know God as Moses does. Only then will they experientially have known the God, not of their remote ancestors but the very nearby God of their parents. As Martin Buber has written, such intimacy cannot "be imagined except on the assumption that a relation which had come down from ancient times has been melted in the fire of some new personal experience."

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