Way back at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), “Moses hid his face, being afraid to look at God.” And for good reason: As God explains later (Exodus 33:20), “No one can see me and live.” Yet here (Exodus 24:10), not just Moses but even the priests and elders “saw the God of Israel,” who, however, “raised no hand against them.”
Why not? What exactly did they see? What would any of us see?
Our philosophically inclined commentators insist that God, being invisible, cannot be seen at all, so they offer a solution in accord with medieval views on prophecy. It wasn’t God “in the flesh” whom they saw; it was just a prophetic vision of God.
According to Maimonides, such a vision arises out of the combination of three perfected character traits: reason, imagination, and morality. Prophets are people who master all three and achieve insights that average men and women lack.
But all those priests and elders could hardly have attained advanced prophetic capacity. They must have received some help from God — a matter addressed by Judah Hechasid, the medieval German mystic who composed “Shir Hakavod” — “Song of Glory” (called also “Anim Z’mirot”), a daring anthropomorphic description of God — as if he had actually perceived God in human form.
But Judah was more sophisticated than that. He believed God has two aspects: the ultimately “true” side that no one sees and a “visual translation” — an emanation from that side, but in knowable human form, the way a shadow of something hidden from sight might be projected upon a screen.
But what exactly does God project? And how would we recognize it as God?
For almost a century, philosophers have been emphasizing the power of speech. Already as children, we begin constructing a vocabulary to name what we encounter: cat, school, candy, and so on. As we grow, we expand our repertoire to include such realities as love, gratitude, and honor, subtleties that cannot be seen but can be known in their imprint upon our lives.
We should amend Judah’s view by saying that the projected side of God is such an imprint — not a visible version of God’s own self.
From Judah, then, we learn that an unseen God imprints the world with signs of the divine. From Maimonides, that those signs will go unrecognized if we do not deepen our capacity to spot them. And from modern philosophy, that “deepening our capacity” requires the language of acknowledgment — a vocabulary that names signs for what they are.
Language is the key. Imprints of the divine are everywhere, but we need language to acknowledge them. Judaism offers that language, but too many of us still reserve it for childish notions of God as a zealous monarch or some silly picture in a textbook. What God displayed on the mountain, however, may have been nothing more (and nothing less!) than the divinity implicit in the kindness of strangers, scientific breakthroughs, and beauty that takes the breath away.
Our sedra calls it a covenant: The Israelites combined reason, imagination, and morality to exercise prophetic vision. God offered a glimpse of the way the divine actually appears in the world. And Torah provides language to recognize the divine in what would otherwise pass us by.