Sermon I דעת אלהים
Knowledge of God
Rabbi Edward S. Boraz, Ph.D.
The Roth Center for Jewish Life
5 Occom Ridge
Hanover, New Hampshire, 03755
We are living in times of confusion, demoralization, and anxiety because of both national and international developments; the land in which we live devours its rulers. In order to avert total collapse of the country, the Government must institute an all-out tax upon the wealthy.
This is Bernhard Anderson’s depiction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in circa. 745 b.c.e. A new ruler has arisen in Assyria. His name is Tiglath-pilesser III. The Assyrians are the most powerful country and it seeks to conquer Egypt. Its foreign policy is to exile the inhabitants of the lands it conquers.
Assyria must pass through the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The latter’s king, whose name is Menachem, imposes a heavy tax upon the wealthy in order to appease the Assyrians, which works only for a short period, for not only is there the constant pressure to avert war, the kingdom is corrupt. There is intrigue, and idolatrous worship. This is the setting in which Hosea will prophesize.
A Biblical Narrative of Hosea
The Book of Hosea begins with God commanding our Prophet to marry a harlot. She will have children and then, as required, he will send her and her children away as required by law. After they have resettled, the same law will permit him to decide whether to return his wife and children to their home.
This command is the parable for his message to the citizens of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel has engaged in harlotry through corruption, selfishness, and idolatry. For these actions, the Assyrian threat has come upon them as instruments of God. Redemption is possible. Just as Hosea will choose to have his wife and the children return, God too will take back the Jewish people.
Hosea is a man who sees a parallel between his own reality and a Divine relationship to the community that he serves. From a modernist perspective, this can be fraught with danger.
However, let us reframe the setting. Let us view the Prophet as a man of God. Hosea is human, an ethicist, and one struggles to mediate between the Divine imperative and the human condition in times of dire need; whether in 720 b.c.e. or in 2011.
I stand before you holding a set of T’philin, the phylacteries that a Jewish adult might adorn during the weekday. One important message is that while forming the word שדי, by wrapping these straps around the middle and ring finger, we recite Hosea 2: 21 through 23. The words are profound.
וארשתיך לי לעולם
וארשתיך ל בצדק ובמשפט וברחמים
וארשתיך לי באמונה
וידעת את יהוה
I betroth you unto me forever
I betroth you unto me in righteousness, justice and compassion
I betroth you unto me in faith
And you shall know God
These words ennoble the human spirit, our humanity, to a relationship with God based on timelessness (עולם), righteousness (צדק), justice (משפט), compassion (רחמים), faith (אמונה) and knowledge of God (דעת אלקים) . Imagine for a moment if each of us whether in Hanover, on Wall Street, Washington, Jerusalem, Damascus, or Cairo, would devote our lives to understanding what these ideals mean. Righteousness, justice, and compassion are ideals that require study, reflection, and sensitivity in its application to the human condition.
No computer, technology, or book has a definitive answer, for these are, at the end of the day, matters of the heart, not simply a philosophic exercise. Even as great a mind as Socrates could not develop adequate definitions for these terms. Instead, his was a necessary quest and one that remains so in every generation.
I want to discuss the concluding statement of Hosea, for as Rabbi, I am most interested in this phrase דעת אלהים – knowledge of God.
Knowledge of God
What might Hosea mean “to know God.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his classic work “The Prophets” analyzes this term דעת – knowledge – to embrace two components. One is emotive. For example, at Exodus 3:7, God says to Moses at the burning bush: “I have seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings.” At Exodus 25:9, the Children of Israel are commanded, “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Heschel wrote “It is to have sympathy, a feeling (Prophets 57).” If he were to think of it today, he might use the word empathy, which is the human capacity through use our imagination and our collective experience to stand in the position of the other and say, I can sense that suffering, that struggle, that pain. It is in this context that one may know such struggles. It is not simply a matter of policy or intellectual analysis. The דעת of Judaism requires empathy. Hence, one characteristic of our knowledge of God is through the empathic experience.
דעת – knowledge - has another characteristic in the Biblical lexicon; one we are quite familiar with. Adam knew Eve. Abraham knew Sarah. Isaac knew Rachel. Thereafter, in each instance, a child is born. Of this “knowing” – דעת – Rabbi Heschel wrote:
It is likely that the sense in which it (דעת) is used here refers to a total relationship, emotional, as well as sexual (58).
As Rabbi Heschel explains, this act is reciprocal “where the feeling of one person is in no sense an object to the other, but in [this kind of union] both persons have the same feeling (59).
The Torah’s simple use of the word here is to indicate that each individual share a common love, a common bond, beyond the physical. Love that is shared between people leads us to a deeper understanding of God.
Hosea (6:6) associates Knowledge with חסד – loving-kindness:
כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח ודעת אלהים מעלות
For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices
Knowledge of God over burnt offerings
Rabbi Heschel describes loving-kindness as a pre-requisite to knowledge of God. It begins in the heart and then is manifest outwardly to others and to the world. Only when we prepare our hearts in this fashion can we then do תקון עולם –repair of a world.
In 720 c.e., 27,000 Israelites (our ancestors) from the Northern Kingdom were deported. These 10 lost tribes of Israel vanished.
What remains is a story and prophecy that arose. Hosea’s words may offer something very real of what we need to do to become a better אדם (human being), a better עם ישראל (a people of Israel), and better אזרח ארצות הברית (a better citizen of our country), and אזרח העולם (a citizen of the world).
Knowledge of God – דעת אלהים - means to live in the pursuit of the ideals of a life based on empathy, on a true desire to know another human-being, and a soul that is motivated to loving-kindness. If we are to know God, then we must embrace empathy to each other. If we are to know God, then we must pursue relationships based on shared feelings of oneness. Our tradition calls upon us to nurture our extraordinary capacity for חסד – the emotion of loving kindness that begins deep within the heart.
I do not know what the future will hold if these ideals would be more manifest in our world. I do not know if our country would pledge allegiance to live these values, whether the stock market would improve or whether this would create more jobs. However, I do believe that if we pledge to actually live as the ritual of the t’phillin urges us to consider, we will be closer to דעת אלהים knowledge of God than before we entered to pray in this sacred space.