Seeing that Which Cannot be Seen

[Ashekanzim: Yeshayahu 6:1-7, 9:5-6

Sefardim: Yeshayahu 6:1-13

Yemenite Jews: Yeshayahu 6:1-13, 9:5-6]


"In the year of King Uziyahu's death, I saw Hashem seated on a high, elevated throne, and the hem of His robe filled the sanctuary" (Yeshayahu 6:1).  This is a most startling declaration.  How is it possible to see Hashem?  Isn't it clear that He does not have any form visible to the eye, as the Torah says: "For you saw no form" (Devarim 4:15).


The prophet Yeshayahu was asked this question by a person who we would hardly expect to be interested in this issue: King Menashe.  This cruel and blood-thirsty man, who spilled so much blood in his lifetime, turned to Yeshayahu with these words: "How dare you contradict the words of Moshe, your Rabbi!  He taught us that it is impossible to see Hashem!  'For man will not see me and live' (Shemot 33:20), and you said: 'I saw Hashem.'  Yeshayahu did not respond, and King Menashe ruled that he was to receive capital punishment for this blasphemy.  The prophet succeeded in fleeing, but was quickly captured and paid with his life for his prophetic declaration (Yevamot 49b).  


Why didn't the prophet bother to answer the king?  Because he knew that there would be not benefit to giving explanations that the king would definitely not accept (ibid.).  King Menashe was not bothered by the problems of pure theology.  He was simply looking for a reason to kill Yeshayahu, who disrupted his criminal plans by demanding holiness.


Nonetheless, the Talmud too raises this question: How was it possible for Yeshayahu to see Hashem when Moshe Rabbenu stated that this was impossible?  Was Yeshayahu's vision able to penetrate deeper than Moshe Rabbenu's?  The Talmud explains that just the opposite is true.  Every prophet is defined as a "seer" but Moshe Rabbenu's vision was the clearest of any. Our Sages relate that Moshe looked through a clear glass, while other prophets looked through glass that was dim, and their ability of discernment was thus less precise.  This is the reason that Moshe Rabbenu - with his clear sight - understood that there was nothing to see, while Yeshayahu - with his comparatively foggy sight - thought he saw something (Yevamot ibid.).


This analysis obviously precedes our central question: What is the meaning of Yeshayahu's vision?  In line with his general approach, the Rambam explained in "Moreh Nevuchim" (2, 42) that this vision, like all prophetic visions, was not seen by the human eyes of the prophet but through a dream.  The Torah teaches that all prophets besides Moshe Rabbenu received prophecy in a dream, whether they were asleep or not (Bamidbar 12:6-8).  The prophet received the prophecy in a dream through his imagination.  But Moshe Rabbenu's ability was totally different: his prophecy appeared through the intellect, and was thus immeasurably more clear and precise (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:6).


In order to advance in our analysis, we will examine another Divine revelation in the first chapter of Yechezkel, known as the "Maase Merkavah" (the prophetic vision of the Divine Chariot).  Yechezkel also saw Hashem.  While Yeshayahu's description was summarized in three verses (6:1-3), Yechezkel's gives a much more detailed description.  This does not mean that Yechezkel was greater than Yeshayahu.  Just the opposite!  In the time of Yeshayahu, the Nation of Israel was still on its Land, had independence and a Jewish king as its leader.  In contrast, Yechezkel lived almost his entire life in the Exile, and the spiritual light was dimmed to a noticeable extent.  According to our Rabbis, the abundance of details given by Yechezkel is explained by the following parable: A king who lived in the city was described by a city-dweller and a villager.  The city-dweller, who regularly met the king, gave a brief and general description.  The farmer, in contrast, who was greatly impressed by the king's glory, gave a grandiose, detailed description.  "All that Yechezkel saw, Yeshayahu saw.  To what can Yechezkel be compared?  To a villager who saw the king.  And to what can Yeshayahu be compared?  A city-dweller who saw the king" (Chagigah 13b).


According to the Rambam, prophetic visions have their source in the imagination, influenced by Divine direction.  A large portion of the first part of his work "Moreh Nevuchim" is his lexicon for all of the parables used by the Tanach to discuss the Master of the Universe.  "The Torah speaks in the language of man" (Berachot 31b).  In relation to the giving of the Torah, it says: "And Hashem descended" (Shemot 19:20) to the Children of Israel.  The Master of the Universe uses our expressions and intellectual concepts in order to approach us, since we know nothing of His essence.  We only have human tools to understand Him.  In His great mercy, Hashem agrees to describe the ‘Upper World’ in the words of the ‘Lower World.’


Hashem is outside of time and space.  Not only is He beyond human concepts, but is a completely different type of existence.  Hashem is both transcendental and imminent.  Hashem is distant as distant can be and near as near can be.


Any Jew who recites a blessing notices that it begins in the second person, "You," i.e. He is close to us, but it ends in the third person, i.e. we acknowledge that He is immeasurably far away.      


Moshe Rabbenu is objectively correct: there is no possibility of seeing the spiritual realms, but with human subjectivity, it is possible to "see" with the help of our imagination.  It is obviously forbidden to create a statue or picture of Hashem.  This is idol worship.  The anthropomorphisms are only verbal in nature, and with the express purpose of bringing the creatures close to the Creator.  Hashem therefore reveals Himself in different forms.  During a time of war, He is described as a soldier who advances at the head of our army. On Mt. Sinai He reveals himself as an elder teaching Torah.  "Hashem is one and His Name is one," but He still reveals Himself in a thousand names.


Despite these revelations, the Master of the Universe is beyond any subjective concept through which we meet Him, and this is a fundamental element of our faith.  Our great, inner yearning for Hashem in the depths of our Divine soul helps us grasp a small amount of Hashem, who is the most supreme.