The author explores the commandment to not create objects with God’s likeness: we don’t need anything carved or sculpted to replace our understanding of God. Enough exists of God in the world for us to rely on. Similarly, we cannot develop fixed images of ourselves or others. Whether we are gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, transgender or intersex, each one of us is one of God’s dreams.
By Marisa Elana James
Thunder and Lightning on the Mountain: We begin to dream the God we cannot see
by Marisa James on Saturday February 10, 2007 22 Sh’vat 5767
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23, Shabbat
We begin this week’s parasha, Yitro, with a domestic reunion; Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, brings Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and the grandkids to the place where Moses is camping with the Israelites. The reunion is touching in a low-key way, and what follows are some of the least issue-laden family interactions we’ve seen in the Torah so far. Moses and Jethro share stories, have a meal together, and interact with obvious respect for each other’s beliefs. Jethro is not an Israelite, but rather “a priest of Midian” (Exodus 18:1), marking this family reunion as a bit of an interfaith encounter. Still, this cultural outsider marvels at Moses’ description of the escape from Egypt and even brings his own “burnt offerings and sacrifices for God” (18:12), which God apparently accepts.
The rest of the Israelites are also so accepting of Jethro that “Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law” (18:12). But Jethro does not join Moses’ ragged band of escapees, nor does he decide to worship this new God to whom he has offered thanks. Jethro does not question Moses’ God, as Pharoah did, instead he easily accepts that he cannot see or touch Moses’ God, a concept that challenges even the Israelites.
We are forbidden to imagine in tangible form what God might look like, because doing so would be making a “likeness” of God for ourselves, which is only a step away from idol worship. In any state of uncertainty it’s comforting to cling to the tangible, but the Israelites are learning to follow a God who speaks to them only in thunder and appears to them in pillars of fire. They cannot do this if they build idols and imagine God’s appearance. Humans, of course, were created in the image of God, but who is to say that “image” means “appearance?” Perhaps we were simply created in the imagination of God, and resemble God only in our love and anger, our rage and compassion.
The Israelites get a taste of God’s love, anger, rage and compassion while in the wilderness, wandering in search of an identity and a home, begging Aaron for a tangible God to worship. They have been slaves too long, and no longer have the imagination necessary to worship a God they cannot see or touch. But our original directions are simple: “Do not make a representation of anything that is with Me. Do not make silver or gold Gods for yourselves” (20:20). In other words, we don’t need anything carved or sculpted to replace our understanding of God. Enough exists of God in the world for us to rely on—when we hear thunder, it reminds us of the voice of God. When we see fire, it reminds us of the appearance of God. When the Israelites build altars of earth and stones, they are touching the very substances from which God made us.
Similarly, we cannot develop fixed images of ourselves or others. The only one who can create an image of me is God. No one else has the right to say, “this is what you should be like, look like, act like.” No one has the right to say, “if you do not conform to this image, you are wrong.” Because even if we don’t resemble God physically, God imagined each one of us. Whether we are gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, transgender or intersex, each one of us is one of God’s dreams, born into the waking world in human form, each of us with the gift of awareness, and the ability to have our own dreams.
So when God tells Moses that the people will be “chosen,” what does that mean for Jethro, for the Israelites, and the rest of humanity? Every human being was created by God—not just the ones we like, or the ones who can read Hebrew, or make a good kugel. And God tells us that not only are we required to remember Shabbat and rest, we are also obligated to make Shabbat a day of rest for everyone in our lives, regardless of who they are or what they believe.
We want God to make us joyful, but the Israelites in the desert were terrified of God. ”’Do not be afraid,’ replied Moses to the people. ‘God only came to raise you up. God’s fear will then be on your faces, and you will not sin.’” (20:17) When do we stop fearing God? When do we stop trembling at the foot of the mountain and gain strength? When we stop fearing what we cannot see, and start trusting in our dreams. When we value imagination as the beginning of all creation, and stop complaining that we cannot imagine anything new or good.
My final question is this; why is this week’s parasha named Yitro, for Moses’ non-Jewish father- in-law? This is the parasha in which God appears to Israel, in which we receive God’s ten most important laws—a parasha whose words are read again and again throughout the year. Jethro keeps himself separate from the Israelites. He respects Moses’ God, but does not follow God or keep God’s commandments. But Jethro is the first to offer unqualified thanks to Moses’ invisible God for taking the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses listens to Jethro and takes his advice, creating a justice system which is necessary to the welfare of the community. Jethro teaches Moses that it is time to relinquish some control and start trusting the Israelites, so that they will listen when Moses tells them not to fear the God who they can follow but not see or touch.
Jethro is the one who teaches Moses to be the teacher the Israelites need.