Amid 100 faces of God, we must seek the unity


Exodus 18:1-20:23

Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6

People give me the most wonderful gifts. Not long ago, a young woman whom I had counseled for a short time sent me a CD composed of some of her favorite music. Each cut was by a different contemporary vocalist, in a different style and idiom, and each was a song about God or Spirit. It is an exquisite collection. Driving around town the other day, I reached a point in the CD I had never heard before, a song called "One Hundred Names" by Nerissa Nields, with the following lyrics:

I have known You all my life;

In fact I knew You long before.

A hundred years or so of You,

And all I want from

You is more.

Sometimes I don't know

who You are;

Sometimes I don't know

where You stand.

All I know is when I called

You came.

I have known You by

one hundred names.

You're the sunshine on my floor.

You're the book I've

halfway read.

You're the smile a

stranger gave

And You're the blessing

someone said…

You make me grateful

for the gray,

You make me grateful

for the blue.

The song beautifully invokes the way in which the Divine reveals itself to us in many different ways at different moments of our lives. It brought me back to the classic midrash, quoted by Rashi on Exodus 20:2, "I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt…" The midrash explains: "At the Red Sea God revealed Godself to them as a young war hero, while at the giving of the Torah as an old man full of compassion. Lest you say, God forbid, 'There are different Deities/Powers,' therefore God needed to say, "I" — I am the One Who was at the sea, and I am the One Who was at the giving of the Torah" (Pesikta Rabati 21).

What an extraordinary description. At the parting of the Sea, Israel (and the Egyptians) needed to see a God Who was young, powerful and invincible. At the giving of the Torah (thunder, lightning and terrifying cosmic sounds notwithstanding), the midrash imagines Israel in relationship with a much gentler God — full of wisdom, compassion and tenderness. The Divine contains infinite facets or faces; our tradition teaches that we perceive the one we most need at a particular moment of our lives.

In Chassidic literature, this phenomenon is often described through the language of disguises and clothing. God is robed now in one kind of dress, and then in another; sometimes the disguise is so convincing as to be impenetrable — we cannot recognize the essential identity within.

At a central point in a prayer service, my colleague Rabbi Arthur Waskow will often ask people to stand and look at everyone in the room, silently saying of each one, "This, too, is the face of God." It would be an interesting exercise to walk around for a full day with this mantra on our lips, reminding ourselves that the frazzled cleaning woman at the fitness center, the slow cashier at the supermarket, the aggressive driver, the sullen teenager, the estranged loved one are all faces of the Divine. Then, of course, we would have to occasionally look at ourselves in the mirror and say, "This, too, is the face of God."

And if we did this exercise regularly through different periods of our lives, we might begin to notice how different faces of the One tend to capture our attention at particular times. When I was a young mother, I discovered the maternal face of God. When I or a loved one is ill, I see — or long for — the gentle, protective face of God. In an airplane in turbulent skies, I call out to the All-Powerful face of God. At times when I am moved to vengeful feelings, I may, God help us, see God's raging face.

The midrash tells us that the great danger in these tricks of perception is that we may fail to recognize the identity of the One in the midst of the disparate faces of the Divine that reveal themselves to us. As Jews, our most basic practice must be to seek out the unity within the apparent fragmentation of life as we see it. We must see behind disguises, recognize unity amidst apparently different phenomena. We must attune our ears to hear the call of the One, "I am the One Who took you from Egypt," and I am the One Who is with you every day.

This Shabbat, when we read of Revelation, may the voice of the One reveal itself to us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at