There's a distinction between jokes and humor. Picture, for example, a young and zealous high school student instructing an absent-minded old man sitting next to him on a park bench to watch his arithmetic. It turns out that the elder with the mathematical scribbles on his lap is . . . Albert Einstein.
Humor is the last thing one would associate with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a towering intellect, a proponent of an existential philosophy of loneliness and a pedagogue who struck fear in his students.
"Memories of a Giant", a series of eulogies on the late rabbi, had one unexpected moment.
The necessary background:
Whether twilight is day or night is a topic in Rabbi Soloveitchik's lexicon, the Talmud. The Torah says to recite the Shema (the declaration of faith) twice a day, "when you get up" and "when you lie down." When is the time for "lying down?" It may be obvious when night is when it is pitch black but it is not clear when night begins. If the Shema is recited during twilight, has one discharged the obligation to recite it at "night"?
The need to consider this is partly sociological. It is not always easy to gather a minyan when it is pitch black. To secure a minyan twice a day is difficult; to do so three times a day is, in many communities, impossible. Jewish law allows the following compromise:
The minyan may gather late in the afternoon, pray the afternoon service, then wait for a short time into twilight for the evening service. The Shema is recited as part of the evening prayers, but then repeated later, when it is definitely dark. While the evening prayers may be recited before it is black out, the bar is higher for the recitation of the Shema. One discharges the obligation to recite it only when it is definitely night. So one repeats it a second time. Alone. At home. At night.
All this was the bread and butter of Rabbi Soloveitchik's life. He had Talmudic reasoning and laws on his fingertips. Therefore, consider:
"One evening the Rav [Rabbi Soloveitchik] was looking for an early minyan for ma'ariv [the evening service]," begins an anecdote in one of the eulogies in Memories of a Giant. "One of the boys he approached was newly observant and clearly had no idea who the Rav was. The boy told the Rav that his rabbi had said that it was too early to daven. The Rav did not mention who he was and simply replied that it is all right, 'I think we can daven now.' The boy was adamant that it was too early and agreed on condition that the Rav promise that he would repeat Shema."
Our young student didn't know he was talking to one of the greatest scholars of his time. He shouldn't feel bad. When all of us talk to
G-d, none of us really knows Him, either. It's basic Jewish theology.
"The Holy One, Blessed is He, is the place of the world, but His world is not His place."
This poetic yet mystifying statement is by Rashi, the foremost commentator. It says so much in so few words precisely Rashi's genius.
It means this:
G-d envelops the world, yet the world does not exhaust Him.
G-d envelops our lives, yet our lives do not and cannot exhaust
Where is G-d? Everywhere in the universe. If we so choose, we may perceive Him in everything from a pebble to events in our lives to the course of history to the farthest astral straits. However, even if our spiritual perception reaches this exalted spiritual level, we hardly know G-d. Even if we know the entire Torah, our knowledge of G-d remains limited. The world is not His place.
Moses yearns to know G-d. Nowhere in the Torah is this expressed more passionately than in this week's Torah portion.
Exodus 33:11: "And the L-rd spoke to Moses face to face, as a person would speak to his friend." Not enough. Moses wants more. He wants to see G-d or, as Moses puts it, to see G-d's glory. He veritably begs G-d to let him know Him. "You said, 'I shall know you by name, and you have also found favor in My eyes.' And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, make Your way known to me . . . " (33:12-13).
Moses repeats the request, varying it:
"How, then, will it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes I and Your people unless You accompany us, and I and Your people are made distinct from every people on the face of the earth?" (33:15).
"Show me now Your glory" (33:19).
This is not a human negotiation. One party cannot throw in the cards. G-d cannot violate either His own nature or the human being's.
G-d will let Moses know only what a human being is capable of knowing. As Eliezer Berkovits pointed out in G-d, Man and History"", no human being could withstand the full presence of G-d. The human being would die in the full presence of G-d. G-d's holiness would consume him, so radical is the difference between G-d and man.
Kabbalists made much of this, conceiving materiality as the "husk" that contains and restrains G-d's "light." The Divine "light" needs to be diluted by materiality if any person is ever to have any knowledge of G-d.
Therefore, even to Moses, G-d can make known only His "goodness" or His "name":
"I shall pass all My Goodness before you, and I shall call out with the Name of the L-rd before you . . . You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live" (33:20).
What, then, can the human being even the most exalted human being, Moses see?
"The L-rd said, Behold! there is a place near Me; you may stand on the rock. When My glory passes by, I shall place you in a cleft of the rock; I shall shield you with My hand until I have passed. Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen" (33:21-23).
G-d has neither hand nor glory, neither face nor back of course. We need not belabor the obvious, the use of anthropomorphism. Nor need we reiterate that anthropomorphism is necessary because the human being is limited, unable to withstand the full revelation of G-d.
We do need to focus on the metaphor: "There is a place near Me; you may stand on the rock."
Note the word: place. It is on this word that Rashi, drawing on midrash, comments: The place is near Me, but not of Me.
"The verse says that the place is with Me, but not that I am in the place. For the Holy One, Blessed is He, is the place of the world, but His world is not His place."