This week's Torah portion unfolds this paradoxical
concept through appropriately the absence of
The strongest human presence in the Hebrew Bible is Moses. From the time of his
first appearance in the first portion of the second book of the Pentateuch, which
records Moses' birth and first stages of growth, until the last chapter of the
Pentateuch, which records Moses' death, he is mentioned by name in every
single Torah portion 42 in all with one exception: this one.
The name of Moses
is found nowhere. "And you shall command the Children of Israel" the opening
verse in this portion refers to Moses, but does not mention him by name. Neither
do all similar verses in this, the seventh portion of Exodus.
Like the exception that proves the rule, Moses' single absence from the books in
which his presence is otherwise overwhelming allows us to peer piercingly into
his essence. Absence is the indispensable essence of Moses and all critical
actors in the human drama the pious person, the saint; the ordinary human
being, created in the image of G-d; and even G-d Himself.
And absence is the essence of holiness.
Saul, the first King of Israel, is the paradigm of the saint, the pious person, the
exemplar of character. Saul is humble and self-effacing absent.
When Samuel the Prophet first intimates that Saul will rise to high station, Saul
replies quizzically that he is but a member of the smallest tribe of Israel and of the
youngest family in that tribe. When Samuel shortly thereafter seeks to anoint Saul
the first King of Israel, Saul is in hiding. He is described by the memorable phrase
which has become a metonymy for the Jewish understanding of piety: nechbah el
ha-kelim, literally, "hidden within the vessels" (II Samuel 10:22). Inwardness,
modesty, avoidance of honor, embarrassment over status absence Saul
embodied. It is all this that the pietistic tradition in Judaism idealized and that the
saints of Judaism emulated. The saint is the opposite of the celebrity. He is
When some learn of a pious person through his devotees, they exclaim, "Why
haven't we heard of him!" Saintliness is not a commodity, subject to the laws of
marketing and distribution. It is not the goal of a saint to be heard of - it is the
success of the seeker after piety to locate him, the failure of the moral voyeur to
expect to be informed of him.
G-d Himself is an absence, philosophically speaking.
To attribute any positive attribute to G-d, no matter how lofty, is to limit G-d, to
reduce and attenuate His presence. To say, for example, that G-d is omniscient is
to regard G-d as a knowing being, only more so; putting G-d essentially on the
same plane as any other knowing being. Similarly, to say that G-d is omnipotent is
to regard G-d as only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from any other
powerful being. All other positive attributes similarly limit G-d.
The only way not to limit G-d is to describe Him by what Maimonides and others
term "negative attributes." To place no limits on G-d, to describe Him as unlike
any other being, is to describe what G-d is not - to say, for example, that G-d is
invisible, incomprehensible, unnameable, ineffable. The attempt to describe G-d
positively is the attempt to describe G-d's essence, and this is impossible. In His
essence, G-d is G-d only by virtue of what He is not by virtue of His absence.
The human being any human being is, by virtue of being created in the image of G-d, an absence.
If one may not posit any positive attribute of G-d, is there not an unbridgeable gap
between Him and humanity? If we have preserved, by a theology of negatives
attributes, the purity of G-d, have we not also removed the possibility of all human
contact with Him and rendered Him irrelevant? Judaism's answer to these
questions is this: G-d's essence is unknowable, indescribable, indivisible, but
G-d's actions the expressions of His will are knowable. If human beings can
never know G-d's essence, they can draw close to Him by obeying His will. G-d
both preserves His private essence and communicates His will, through the Bible.
G-d has no positive attributes and expresses His concern for humanity by
revealing His commandments.
Similarly, the human gesture must be twofold: concealment and revelation,
privacy and interaction, inscrutability and disclosure. G-d combines an ultimate,
essential mystery with ethical activity. The human being must combine the
protective privacy of an ultimate boundary with communication. This is a form of
Just as G-d is resistant to final theological curiosity, the human being must retain
a private, individual essence. The human being must resist being a mere
composite of characteristics, be they economic, social, physical or psycho-
logical. To be fully human, a human being must possess an element of absence.
That one person cannot fully know another is a measure of human dignity and
What is holiness? It is kedushah. Etymologically, this denotes separation,
restraint, withdrawal. Holiness is the limit that G-d's will places upon the
unrestricted revelation of human desire. Holiness is not eating certain foods, not
acquiring property by certain means, not indulging in intimate relations at certain
times, not saying certain things about others. Holiness incubates absence: the
absence of partaking, of acquiring, of indulging, of speaking, on the criteria of
Such is the message of this Torah portion, first hinted at by the absence of Moses
and further highlighted by the mysterious "breastplate of judgment."
The breastplate of judgment, a small, pouch-like garment worn by the High
Priest, is mysterious by virtue of its strange juxtaposition. Its crafting is described
alongside all of the other priestly garments, themselves preceded by a description
of, and forming an integral part of, the most externalized and majestic expression
of religion in the Pentateuch: the Tabernacle. Amid the pageantry and physicality
of the priestly garments in the Tabernacle, the small breastplate of judgment,
with its mysterious procedure, conveys the presence of G-d intensively.
The breastplate of judgment was folded in two, with its front half containing 12
settings, holding 12 stones, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, with the letters
spelling the name of each tribe engraved on its stone. Inside the fold was a
parchment on which Moses wrote the ineffable name (or names) of G-d.
Inside, hidden, unpronounceable: the absence of G-d went by the metaphor, Urim
ve-Tumim. As the High Priest inquired of G-d, individual letters of the tribal names
lit up. This luminosity was signified by Urim, literally, "lights." The High Priest's
correct arrangement and deciphering of the letters was signified by Tumim,
literally, "completeness," i.e., the correct arrange- ment and deciphering of the
Divine message. The hiddenness of the Urim ve-Tumim yielded G-d's will in the
form of specific answers to specific questions. The absence of the name of G-d,
folded between the two sides of the breastplate of judgment, yielded the
awesome sense of G-d's presence. It was evoked by His provision of unerring
This mysterious mode of G-d-man communication was awesome. How much
more awesome does it appear by virtue of the absence of Moses from this portion
Moses, whose communication with G-d was still more intense, "face to face, as a
man would speak to his friend" (Exodus 33:11). In focusing on the importance of
absence the presence that inhered in absence - this portion provides both a
definition and a motive for holiness: for the special holiness of the saint, and for
the holiness available to every person, each in imitation of G-d Himself. His
highest presence is absence; so, too, man's.