Every day – three times a day, if you’re that kind of devout – Jews pray the prayer that begins “Blessed are you, Lord, our God and God of our fathers.” (Fathers and Mothers, that is, if you’re that kind of Reform.) The prayer goes on to name them, too: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah, God of Rachel. The sages asked, why does the prayer not simply say God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and be done with it? Why repeat the word “God” with each patriarch? And the answer they settled on was, because each of our fathers experienced his relationship with God in a different way. Abraham’s God was the same, and yet different from Jacob’s God, and so it is with us: we must each strive to find the way in which the Eternal One, Blessed be He, is our own God. I mean, the real answer probably has more to do with the demands of poetic rhythm, but still, those sages – they knew how to wind beauty around a nugget of sand and come up with a pearl.
The prayer then soars into even more lofty poetry: Ha-El ha-gadol, ha-gibor, v’ha-norah, El Elyon! Which means roughly, Great God, Powerful God, Awesome God, God Most High! But lately, my mind has been wandering in prayer, and by the time we get to “ha-norah,” I find myself thinking about a friend of mine and her little granddaughter named Norah. I told her recently that the word norah in the Hebrew meant awesome, terrible, dread-inspiring, and she agreed that yeah, that was about right for a two-year-old. So today in synagogue I had this secret grin on my face, imagining that we were describing God as Norah-like. And the truth is. . . the truth is, I think we could do worse than to spend some time imagining God not as the great and awesome thunder-making Sky Judge of legend, but as a playful, capricious, inscrutable two-year-old.
Who but a two-year-old would dream into existence a world like ours, full of such shocking abundance of unnecessary beauty? Who but a two-year-old would long so to play with us, would prod us to wake up, wake up, when we are numb to the world’s joy and wonder? Who but a two-year-old would will the evolution of the improbable mudskipper, or the hermaphroditic earthworm? From Eden to Bethel to Sinai, play with me, play with me, God demands. If you disappoint or hurt a two-year-old, when they wake up the next day, it is all erased: their plump rosy arms go around your neck, and you are better than forgiven, because they have forgotten that it happened at all. Love, joy, grief, anger, laughter, desire: none of it is ever as real in our lives as when we are two. Is it possible that as two-year-olds, we experience reality in something of the same way that this strange unfathomable God does?
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. . . God of Norah. It was the core of Heschel’s teaching (zichrono livracha) that God longed for us as much as we longed for Him—more, even. It is easy for two-year-olds to believe that they are cherished and loved. It is their default assumption, in fact. Only when we grow older, harder, more cynical, more battered by experience, do we find it hard to believe that the heart of the universe might ache with love for us. In Mary Poppins, the baby converses happily with the bird on its nursery windowsill, until one day the bird flies down to resume yesterday’s interesting conversation, and “goo-goo gah” is the only thing that comes out of the baby’s mouth. The bird realizes its friend has grown into humanness, and sadly flies away. Jewish tradition teaches that babies in the womb are taught all of Torah and converse with the angels, and then as they are born are touched on the lips and made to forget it all. I wonder if that’s so God can have the joy of finding us again, so we can play with Him over and over and over, so all of knowledge can be ever new as the world is ever new for Him.
This week’s Shabbat resolution: less growing up, more growing down. I’d like to see the universe as God does. Maybe Norah can teach me.