God is a Poem (c) R. Noah Zvi Farkas
How literal is faith? The other night I was at a shiva minyan and I was asked by one of the family members how could one pray for miracles that don’t not exist. I took a deep breath, knowing that others wanted to speak to me and said that I don’t believe in the supernatural – like turning water into blood or splitting the sea- and I’m not sure that God really exists. But my faith and the language of faith is not so literal. The God I believe in is a poem, not an essay. Let me explain.
There are two drives in every person, the drive to know and the drive to be known. Everyone of us wants to know the world we live in. It is that drive that pushes outward our own capacity for discovery, for science and innovation. To know the world is to be a part of it, to manipulate it, to conquer it-to be in control of it. The drive to know gives us power and confidence to not be afraid of the dark or feel the terror of the tempest. The drive to know the world can be used for good or ill. It can improve humanity or destroy it, but the drive to know is a huge part of who we are.
On the other side is the drive to be known. Every step in the world we take we want another to see us take that step. All of us look for recognition. It is a myth that someone is so self-actuated that they need no one else in their life to validate their choices, their dreams and their fears. No person is an island. The drive to be known can push us to be better people, to feel like we have a community, to feel like we have friends. The drive to be known, similarly, can for evil. Jealousy and envy are emotions that one feels when they are not known. And in some cases the terrible loneliness of life is projected outwards violently. We lash out because we need to feel regarded. It is still part of who we are.
Knowing God would then fall into the first category. But how can we know God? What science experiment or philosophical treatise can really prove God’s existence? The rabbis knew this truth. Finding God is not something one can reason their way into. God’s essence can be known, God’s goodness too, but not God. When the Romans sacked the Temple, the legend goes, they came to Holy of Holies and shoved their spears inside hoping to kill the Jewish God. When the soldiers entered the most holy of places, however they found only an empty room. The High Priest, in shackles and bloodied, only laughed. God cannot be found by knowing, God is not found in an essay.
On the other hand, being known by God is a very different thing. The Torah ends with a poem, not an essay. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they sang a song – a poem – they didn’t write a news report. God is a relational term, not a name. God is found in sacred moments of salvation, of life living in the most vivid of colors. When Moses said in his epic poem, “This is my God and I will exalt Him” (Forgive the gendered language). The midrash teaches that the letters became switched, it should really say, “This is my God, He and I…” Teaching that God is together with us in moments of joy and sorrow in moments of majesty and simplicity. Rav Kook once wrote that the Hebrew word for nothingness, Ain, and the Hebrew word for God’s presence, Ani are at their root the same word. Nothingness is a form of presence. God is not an essay, God is a poem.
To be known by God is more powerful than knowing God. It brings God closer to ourselves because it asks of us to open our hearts and souls to Other by binding all of us together to be regarded and cherished. To know what hurts us, what makes us laugh, and what gives us a joy. What can be more poetic than that?