We all have lifelong interests. For some of us, they are hobbies or avocations. For others, they may be art or literature. My lifelong interest has been philosophy, and more specifically, theology.
I ask you, dear reader, to ponder what your lifelong interests have been. I further ask that you try to identify the specific time in your early life that this interest began to develop. Was it in childhood, or adolescence, or not until adulthood? And where did these auspicious beginnings occur? In a classroom, in a library, or perhaps on the playground?
For me, my lifelong fascination with matters theological began on the beach. My parents, may they rest in peace, took us each year for summer vacation to Rockaway Beach, NY. We rented some rooms there in a large house which belonged to an old Irish Catholic couple, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher. After spending an entire year in a totally Jewish environment, those summers exposed us to individuals of a very different religious background. Believe me, it was a powerful learning experience in many ways.
For me, but perhaps not for my sisters, it was where I first began to learn, not just about theology, but about comparative theology. This came about because of my introduction to the Fletchers’ granddaughter, Judith. I was then eight or nine, and Judith perhaps a year or so younger.
We had long talks, Judith and I, and they were often about God and the subject of prayer. I remember the shock I experienced when I learned about Judith's conception of God, which she had of course learned in the Roman Catholic parochial school she attended. In the simplistic discourse of eight-year-olds, it became apparent that her God was once a man, of flesh and blood. My God was very much “without a body and without any semblance of a body.”
I brought my discovery of the differences between my God and Judith's God to the teacher my parents would hire each summer to make sure that I did some daily Torah study. He told me that I had made a very important discovery at a much younger age than most Jewish boys. He told me that I had learned about the basic difference between Judaism and Christianity. That discussion with my teacher so long ago launched my lifelong interest in the nature of the Jewish belief in God, and the profound differences between that belief and Christian belief.
The final portion of the entire Torah, Vezot Haberachah, which we read this year on Simchat Torah – on Friday, the Yom Tov day, and not on Shabbat – has always brought back memories of that summer long ago and of that profound early learning experience. This is because the opening verse of this Parsha contains the phrase "Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died."
Moses, for the first time in the entire Pentateuch, is called “man of God”, ish haElohim, an appellation provoking the question, "Was he a man, or was he a God? Was he different from other men, perhaps more godly than they? Was he in some way himself a deity?"
How emphatically are our possible misconceptions about Moses dispelled by the second half of the phrase, “before he died”! (Deuteronomy 33:1) Moses was utterly human, he was mortal, he died, and as we learn later in the portion was buried. Right here we have the essential difference between our faith and the Christian faith. There is one God, and to use the language of theology, He is incorporeal; that is, He has no body and no physical form whatsoever. He is totally different from all of His creations. God is not man and no man can be God.
For the past several weeks, we have all been engaged in prayer. The lesson which follows from the aforementioned basic principle of our faith is that the Jew prays to God alone, and does not pray to any human being, living or dead, however inspiring that person may be. We do not pray to men or women, and we do not even pray to angels. We need no intermediaries in our prayers; we pray to God alone.
For the past several weeks, we have all been engaged in Teshuvah: self examination, confession, and repentance. In this process too, we need no human intercessors. We introspect before God, we confess directly to Him, and we repent, or return, to Him. How unlike is our process of Teshuvah from the experience that Judith told me about: the confessional of the Roman Catholic Christian believer. She dreaded those confessionals and the requirement that she recount her childish sins to another person. How different was my childhood experience of viduy, confession, before an all-forgiving God who understood and tolerated my spiritual failings.
The end of this Torah portion drives home a related lesson. Moses was buried in a grave, and yet “no one knows his burial place to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) Why has Moses’ burial place remained unknown for all these millennia? Wouldn't it have been only fitting for him to have an impressive headstone, a monument that we could visit when we wanted to pay tribute to our greatest leader?
It has been suggested that the reason the location of Moses’ grave has been hidden from us is precisely so that we do not go there to pay tribute. Had we been able to visit his grave, we might very well have begun to worship the monument under which he lies buried. We may very well have yielded to the temptation of our Christian fellows, and have turned a man into a God.
As the long Holy Day period draws to a close, it is imperative that we call to mind this basic lesson in theology, the lesson I personally learned so very long ago. In Judaism, all men are mortal, all are flesh and blood, all can sin, and all are subject to human shortcomings.
As the Holy Days of Tishrei draw to a close, a period during which we have all had our spiritual experiences and have learned so many religious lessons, we cannot lose sight of this basic lesson, the one which distinguishes our faith from its “daughter faith.”
In the words of the composer of the Yigdal prayer, found near the beginning of every Jewish prayer book, of every siddur:
“Great is the living God and praised.
He exists, and His existence is beyond time.
He is one, and there is no unity like His.
Unfathomable, His Oneness is infinite.
He has neither bodily form nor substance;
His holiness is beyond compare.”