Feeling a sense of the numinous from time to time is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.
The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah); bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot); service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests); and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah. Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.
What matters most is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:
You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)
eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)
pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)
matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone
maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine
elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God
What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:
Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)
shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths
mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place
Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said the holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.
Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.
Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.
A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.
When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.
So I have to reinterpret the phrase: I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.
When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.
In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.