June 15, 2006
God Is Gray
Parshat Beha'alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
"This is heaven," I announced Sunday afternoon.
Cruising the city (the absence of traffic in itself celestial), sunroof open, exposed shoulders browning. Wild poppies glistening, swaying in a soft breeze scented by orange blossoms; singing along to KOST 103.5 FM:
I can see clearly now the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.
It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day.
"Heaven," I said. "Yep," everyone agreed, celebrating under flawless sapphire sky -- free from even the teeniest speck of a cloud -- "this is paradise."
Heaven, paradise -- choose a synonym: ecstasy, bliss, rapture. We use such words to describe experiences of perfect, supreme happiness, God on earth. The conditions on Sunday merited all such descriptions, especially that immaculately blue sky. Skies like that burn gloom away.
Now, don't get me wrong. Gray days certainly have a subtle beauty. But no one calls Seattle paradise, and if Fritz Coleman reported that a cloud was going to remain interminably over Los Angeles, a mass exodus to South Beach would certainly ensue.
I'd probably go, too. I mean, who wants to live under a cloud forever?
How dull. How boring.
Those are the synonyms for "cloudy," along with: hazy, murky, gray, obscure -- not the ideal forecast, to say the least.
What would inspire my sermons in such weather? How would I instill faith in God if I were denied its experience? Because the experience of the Divine is an ecstatic one, right? It is the feeling of rapture, bright, glorious bliss, isn't it? I mean, no one prays in hopes of reaching an enhanced state of hazy obscurity.
And yet, this week's parsha tells us that from the day the Israelites erected the tabernacle (the place of Divine presence made manifest on earth) a cloud covered it. Seems they weren't singing much about sunshiny days, for, "so it was always: The cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night" (Numbers 9:16).
No need for sunglasses or flashlights near God's house. More like a mobile home than an estate, the cloud was the original built-in navigation system: When it moved, the people picked up the tabernacle and followed it, "and in the place where the cloud abode, there [they] encamped."
Meaning, the closer we get to the experience of God on earth, the more overcast it is, and if it starts to clear up, we should move away from the brightness and follow the clouds. Always.
And so I must ask: Are you kidding? What, so heaven is hazy? God is gray?
Maybe. At least, the ultimate experience of God is gray. As in not black nor white, not agony nor ecstasy, not seasonal affective disorder nor carcinoma from sun overexposure; it is the subtle obscurity at the nexus of all those extremes.
According to the portion, God's presence is made manifest in the middle. We call that dull, murky or boring -- or, we can call it balance. See, the ultimate Los Angeles Sunday might be our human definition of heaven, but it is one that is inherently dependent on a day of equivalently dismal, mud-sliding gloom.
Here on earth, that's how we see things: in terms of their polarities. The big Chief set that up in Genesis: light opposed darkness, day defined night, man contrasted woman. God created all the highs and lows in precise opposition to one another as the essence of our human experience -- to be tempered with our spiritual experience. But we lost our way and got stuck in the duality, where our delusional aspirations for perfection and delight led to swings toward equal and opposite desperation. Lost in the realm of heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, we still think that bad feelings will disappear when bright, sunny days come back around.
From this human perspective, it makes sense that we would equate a Divine day with dazzling, untainted perfection. But God is beyond our mundane experience. He is the source of it. She is the containment of it all. And in recognizing that God is One, we head for the clouds -- we welcome the haze.
A cloud sheltered the Divine's residence among the Israelites every day, and fire illuminated it by night; it is never fully dark nor light in the presence of what is most holy. Always a bit obscured, for how could we possibly apprehend everything or nothing?
God is gray. God is the opaque place in between all of our yearnings for some ultimate and definitive extreme. And while I am still "in heaven" that summer has finally descended upon La La Land, I am well aware that it is only as glorious as it is because it contrasts the nasty cold I kvetched about all winter.
Sunday was a temporary ecstasy for which I will pay with my grief in the fall. But if I can remember to set my sights on the clouds, as few or many as they may be, I will be sheltered by their subtle and eternal protection, predictably guided back to my own center. It may not be rapture, but it will certainly be peace. Wholeness. Shalom. That is paradise. A cloudy day.
Karen Deitsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.