D’var Torah: Parashat Vayeira

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.


Did you know… 

     Breakfast, as we understand it today, didn’t exist for a large part of history. In fact, ancient Romans saw it as gluttonous to eat more than one meal a day.

     My high school in Atlanta is five hundred and fifty-five miles from my college in St. Louis.

     The first Curious George book was written in 1939 and since then, over three million copies have been sold in sixteen different languages.

     A company called MaKey MaKey developed a circuit board that gives users the power to turn anything—a banana, a ball of Play-Doh, a coffee mug, anything—into a functional keyboard key.

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I didn’t. I didn’t know about the history of breakfast, or about Curious George’s previous life as a monkey named Fifi, or any of those other things, but it took me less than thirty minutes to learn them all. This is because we live in the Google age, and therefore have and incredible wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. Need directions? Google it. Forgot your calculator? Type the math equation into the Google search bar. As far as I’m concerned, Google has the capacity to brief me in just about any topic I could ever be curious about.

Notice the “just about.” Everyone has had that experience—you type something into Google, and it just doesn’t give you anything that settles your curiosity. You think it’s your fault, so you reword your search and try again. Still nothing. Your frustration grows as you repeat and repeat, trying to come up with the correct way to articulate your question because obviously the reason Google can’t answer you is because it can’t understand you, and you never think for a second that maybe… Google doesn’t know.

This past week, Rabbi Joel Alter came from the Jewish Theological Seminary to Wash U to host a discussion for, well, anyone who wanted to come. He provided us with two choices of topics and after a vote, we decided on “TMI: The Unknowable in a Google World.”

The plan was to spend a Wednesday night eating dinner and talking about “knowing”—what we can’t know or shouldn’t know, what we do know about G-d, and how our ever-expanding breadth of knowledge impacts, or relates to, our views on Judaism and the Torah. Unfortunately, trying to put together, and keep together, a group of students on a weekday night during midterms is a near impossible task, so we really only touched the surface of the topic.

I’ll start, however, with this: a Google search for the word “God” produces about 907 million responses in 0.2 seconds, and a search for “God of the Torah,” an attempt to narrow the results, still produces about 12 million, six hundred responses in the same amount of time. But even if, by some incredible feat, I was able to read all twelve million- six hundred responses, I still wouldn’t “know” G-d because knowing G-d isn’t like knowing the date of a historical event or the number of miles between two places; it’s much different.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, G-d makes a visit to four different people. First, G-d comes to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three angels disguised as men: “Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance… And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him” (Genesis 18:1-2). Then, in the land of Sodom, the same man-like angels appear to Lot, Abraham’s nephew, to save him when G-d destroys Sodom: “Whom else do you have here?… For we are destroying this place, because their cry has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it” (Genesis 19:13). In a third instance, G-d appears to King Abimelech, without angels, in a dream; and finally, after being driven out from Abraham’s house, Hagar was visited by an angel of G-d.

We note here, that in all four instances, G-d does not truly appear to anyone. In three of the four situations, G-d sends angels in his place; and in the other, He appears only in a dream. Why? Because we, as human beings, wouldn’t be able to handle it. In Exodus 33:20, G-d explicitly says, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Kabbalah, the teachings of Jewish mysticism, explain that our inability to see G-d results from the difference between the indefinite and the definite. G-d is referred to as the Ein Sof, the Being with “no end,” whereas we, human beings, are limited. According to this line of teaching, our world, with all its limitations, does not have the capacity to display G-d in His entirety. G-d, therefore is said to be concealed by the Torah and by Mitzvot and it’s only in this concealed state that G-d may show Himself to this world.

So, we can’t come to know G-d through Google; I think that’s fairly indisputable. We can, however, use it as a gateway. As far as I’m concerned, my “knowing” of G-d grows each time I study the Torah or perform Mitzvot, or even sit down to a meal with my family. This is because in my mind, “knowing” G-d involves creating a personal connection to Him. In this way I can “see” him in a very real, but metaphorical way. I can Google Jewish philosophers and various schools of thought; I can find eText versions of Jewish scripture; and I can translate pages of writing, or individual words. We can all grow to know a lot about Judaism, which in turn will help in our “knowing” of G-d.