Divrei Torah

Chen again and again


Gracious Grace:
All For G-d’s Eye


“Ata chonen l’adam da’at, u-melamed le-enosh binah. Chonenu me-it’cha chochmah binah ve-da’at. Baruch ata HaShem, chonen ha-da’at…” (Shemoneh Esrei)

Through Your grace, G-d, grant us wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Blessed are You. Grace us by bestowing Your grace.


“…ve-al chayim chen ve-chesed shechonantanu…” (Birkat HaMazon)

… And upon the life, grace, and lovingkindness that You ever-grace us with …



The Torah and the Hebrew Bible illustrate G-d’s relationship with a particular people, the Israelite nation. Yet the story reaches back further toward a universal awareness of G-d within the totality of human life, as the story begins with the creation of the Firmament and continues through the creation of the first man, woman and family on earth. G-d reviews everyone, as homo sapiens are uniquely relational creations. Angels are supernal, and animals are pure instinct. Only we are entrusted with a fraught freedom to refine and the promise of ethics.  There is no such thing as a “good” flower, because G-d is not relativistic with each; every specimen is unique in situ, and nothing in a flower is for want. Whereas all of us, we stand before G-d’s judgment of our actions in response to G-d’s intent for us. It is only human to compare amongst ourselves, but that is not G-d’s manner with us. We are judged by a rubric of our own potential.

Jews pray for chen (grace, favour) three times a day, even as we recall that G-d graces us openly at all times. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote God in Search of Man, was fond of saying that G-d is always asking “where are you?” just as He asked Adam in the Garden of Eden. Of course G-d is always present. It is we in our forgetfulness who are prone to absence, and so we pray. The very promise of prayer is to live by grace in dialogue with the Almighty.

Despite this ubiquity of Presence, the Torah mentions only two historical figures who personified chen for G-d: Noach and Moshe Rabbeinu. The age of Noach finds the world in tumult, and the Creator wishes to de- and re-create. G-d begins humanity anew through Noach and his children.  From this time forward, the human race makes a second attempt to strain for a holy distinction apart from the creatures. Only with Moshe does G-d say that His grace has returned to the world. Why was it so rare when it is always available? That is the commanding question to each of us, isn’t it?

1) The Fruitless Fruit

The fourth bracha of the Shemoneh Esrei, as cited above, speaks of spiritual knowledge, da’at. The key pursuit in religion is knowledge of G-d. Kindly hearken back to the injunction upon Adam in the Garden of Eden to refrain from the fruit of Etz ha-Da’at Tov va-Ra, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? What did that fruit ruin within us?  

Humans have yet to move beyond the wound this fruit inflicted. Our first sophomoric instinct is to force knowledge of G-d through a lens of good and evil. We hold easy-made opinions about G-d spinning upon half-blind evaluations of what is good in the world. Someone must have mis-assumed that we can judge the Judge. Of course, the true extent of good is kept from human ken. A temporal life cannot witness its full overview. Sages warn us not to judge. Avoid the office that fools rush to.

When making note of Adam’s loneliness, G-d doesn’t call it “bad” (ra), only “not good” (lo tov) (Bereishit 2:18). To the Creator of the Universe, “not good” is merely “not good yet,” longing for a sprucing-up. Later on, G-d tells Qayin to be careful for evil crouches at his door (Bereishit 4:7). G-d warns Qayin about murder He does not prevent it, and Qayin goes on to make his infamous judgment call. People judge poorly all the time; we all bear the mark of Qayin. If we humans were creatures of eternal life, we would not falter, for we would employ Heaven’s eyesight. But such is our lot: with limited accuracy we approximate the knowledge of what G-d might want.

We might suggest that Adam’s mistake wasn’t to eat the fruit, but to eat it prematurely. Was the fruit not ripe yet? No, Adam wasn’t ripe yet. He was never told to refrain from the fruit of the Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life. If he had eaten the Fruit of Life, his eyes would have been opened to eternality and perhaps, at that point, the fruit of Etz ha-Da’at Tov va-Ra wouldn’t have been poisonous to him. From the view of the Eternal, the knowledge of good and evil may simply be the knowledge of timeless good, timeless G-d. But from our mortal perspective we aren’t able to digest this truth. It’s as though we are missing an enzyme. We cannot escape the presentiment of evil and we cannot return to the eternity of Eden.

2): Noach, or chen in reverse

In the third chapter of Bereishit, primordial Adam and Chava are banished from their paradisiacal birthplace. Their descendents will be born into exile. The whole goal of the soul after Eden is to re-find favour in G-d’s eyes, as did Noach and Moshe Rabbeinu according to Torah. Grace entered the vocabulary of the world to describe Noach, who stood simple and pure in distinction with the corruption which had aggregated among men. Noach found chen and was able to save Creation (Bereishit 6:8). If I have chen, Moshe later said to HaShem, then please show me Your Essence (Shemot 33:12-19). Kel Rachum veChanun, the Compassionate and Gracious G-d, used chen to draw humanity near again, first by reestablishing the world through Noach, then by revealing Himself to Moshe in order to revolutionize our human understanding of the power of spirit.. The Arizal taught of Noach’s gilgul (transmogrification) into Moshe Rabbeinu.

The Torah describes a mere few by their characteristics. Noach is called a pure man, an innocent—ish tamim. Yosef is called the righteous one—HaTzaddik. And Moshe Rabbeinu is described as the humblest man upon the earth—anav.  Remember also their counterpoint in the non-human world: the snake in the Garden was called nakedly cunning—arum. Adam and Chava tell of how the snake imbued them with that selfsame nakedness, obscuring them from G-d’s eyesight.

Noach had the gift of grace but did not share it with his contemporaries, whereas Moshe’s grace radiated out upon the people, becoming actualized in the new covenant. Yosef HaTzaddik provided a catalyst for this transition from the self-contained purity of Noach toward the accessible humility of Moshe, who reflected so much Divine Light that he had to veil himself. As we will see, Moshe enabled all of humankind to reclaim grace, as was G-d’s original intention for us to receive His Light in unfiltered form.

The name Noach (nun, chet) comprises the letters of chen in reverse. The word noach itself means a settling rest, in cleansed accord with G-d. This is the restorative rest of the nefesh, the daily animal sleep we share with the creatures Noach was able to save. Grace within Noach carried him from the waters deep and planted him surefooted, earthbound. But nobody could imbibe G-d’s Light through Noach; others could not partake of his chen.  Remarkably, one person among the planet’s whole population had uncannily kept himself pristine. Frighteningly, the Torah says here that G-d “regretted having made human beings on the earth” (Bereishit 6:6). We are so much the material of innate violence. This must be the counterpoint to seeking grace. The simplicity of Eden is a lodestar. But with innocence in crisis, knowledge of G-d can scarcely be anything but scarce.

What do we see of Noach’s grace? When Noach spoke to his fellow traveler, he was always speaking to G-d. Grace is minding the divine within every creature, within oneself, within every transient phenomenon in G-d’s world. When Abraham asks G-d: “Is there nobody good in all of Sodom and Gomorrah?” it is clear that Abraham hasn’t yet found the divinity within himself, for he distinguishes good from evil rather than simply evoking the sacred.

A grace-driven man would not only refrain from eating the fruit; he would wither it from its high status in the mind. It is graceful to retire to a place where not everything is considered. Noach would know the ‘no.’ Some say he purposely delayed the completion of the ark to allow others time to enter G-d’s field of vision. Destruction couldn’t begin so long as he was building. Such is the operation of prophetic grace, when G-d shares His creative force so that we may partner with Him in developing the world.

The next Biblical personality to be given a special appellation is Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the Righteous. Yosef embodied true fellowship and brotherhood, a tracing of circles beyond his own. Here we can deconstruct the letters of HaTzaddik to discover two words: dai (yud-dalet) and ha-ketz (he-kuf-tsadi). Dai haketz means, roughly, “enough! the conclusion is upon us.” Through his righteousness, Yosef carried his brothers toward a premonition of the true G-d of the Universe. A shift was made for the world. Yet still obliteration is given its name within the lineage. The name of Yosef’s firstborn son, Menashe, can be traced to the verb nasheh, to forget and be forgotten. Alas, Menashe’s neshama remains scrambled in anagram.

3: Light upon the people

Moshe Rabbeinu felt what no man ever felt, saw what none had ever seen: the dissembling disassembly of the court of Pharaoh unto the reign of G-d. And yet Moshe was not immune to discouragement. When Israel too dissembles and reverts to the familiar slave mindset while navigating the desert, Moshe questions G-d. “Have I not found chen in Your eyes, that You have burdened me with more than I can bear?” (Bamidbar 11:11.) What good is my chen if it doesn’t influence and imbue the nation? His perceived loss of G-d’s Heavenly partnership is a horrifying glimpse of the weight of a world without Presence.  The burden of such a life presses Moshe down onto calumny upon the people, but G-d reproofs with a solution. He tells Moshe to peer into the souls of the seventy loftiest elders who yet see G-d’s expanse within themselves. These elders demonstrate how Moshe’s beam of light has reflected upon the community. The number seventy is represented in Hebrew by the letter ayin, which has the double meaning of “eye” and “fountainhead,” a spring in an oasis. We must see, as Moshe came to see, the rehydrating force of eternity in our task. Even the simple act of beginning a re-search for G-d marks the first light(e)ning steps in emerging from the arid clumps and clamps of the desert.

Soon after this passage, G-d Himself resorts to such despairing language: “How long will this nation treat Me with contempt?” (Bamidbar 14:11.) Let us note that G-d is not gracious to ingrates. G-d tells Moshe that He wants to begin the nation afresh, to fashion a new people from Moshe’s progeny. Now it is Moshe’s turn to re-insight G-d, as he petitions the Almighty not to do Egypt’s destructive work in the desert. My fate is their fate, Moshe says, and Israel’s eternal pledge is to follow You — na’aseh v’nishma, to obey the Commandments and to listen for You (Shemot 24:7.) Here we see the tikkun of Noach to actively fight for man’s place in this world, just as Noach should have been politically active for the sake of his fellow man. Moshe asks: why diminish Your Essence? If You slaughter this people, the world will have lost Kel Rachum veChanun, the Gracious One Who Teaches Grace. G-d peers into Moshe’s soul and finds the soul of His treasured people once again, His am segula. There is a beautiful mutuality in this exchange: Moshe needs G-d to nurture the nation’s mission, and G-d needs Moshe to believe in the emanation of His Presence upon Israel. Each says to the other: stop your caterwauling and create! This, my friends, is grace.

Until the Revelation in the desert, G-d bestowed chen upon very few. Moshe prays of the Commander to share the Almighty Essence: “Whom are we following?” Moshe wants to know HaShem fully and completely; what we receive instead is His pronouncement and availability. G-d reveals Himself to Moshe alone—the only one in the world to stand beneath the rays of His open grace (Shemot 33:17)—and the Torah records his discovery for humankind forever: HaShem HaShem Kel Rachom veChanun… (Shemot 34:6-7.) G-d has given the world the instructions and the industry to pursue chen.

Moshe Rabbeinu—like Noach, drawn free from the waters—carries the last three letters of the word neshamah in his name (mem, shin, heh), but where is the nun?  Let us propose that this missing nun is the nun of the name Noach. Just as Noach becomes the forefather of the flood-cleansed world through his careful preservation of each living species, Moshe becomes the forefather of the rebirthed nation upon the day of Revelation, the giving of Torah at Sinai. Just as Noach saves the nefesh, the essential soul of life; Moshe preserves the neshama, the uniquely worshipful soul that fears and loves the Creator. Now all are able to receive ruach chen, the spirit of grace, though it remains our duty to not obscure with myopic puniness. Grace is possible when we don’t hide our faces from it.

4) Grace today

So yes, we inherit an opaque vision, the fruit of Adam’s foolish maneuver. We also inherit the means to purify our sight through prayer. Grace is bravely unfiltering G-d’s Light from oneself. Moshe Rabbeinu received the full blinding force of G-d’s Light and ricocheted it onto the world—and even this was diminished in the eye of the people, only to be renewed. Renewal is to situate oneself in the perpetual loop of Bereishit. Chen again and again.

From the time of Adam until the days of Noach, G-d set no moral judgment nor expectation upon our species. As of the Second Creation, humans are evaluated by G-d as relational and societal creatures. Noach, emerging from the ark, bequeathed his seven laws to humankind: (a) Worship the Master instead of the servants. (b) Maintain overt reverence, and avert limiting G-d by owning His name. (c) Refrain from spilling blood. (d) Elevate oneself above lewd and crude behaviour. (e) Respect the value and borders of property. (f) Revere the sanctity of animal life. (g) Establish a social contract to keep justice at the core of human society. The Jewish people, too, receive their own set of legal directives through Moshe Rabbeinu. G-d gave the Ten Commandments to be the hallmark tenets of the Israelite nation, laws more idiosyncratic and specific like “I am the G-d who took you out of Egypt” and “Keep Shabbat holy.” We might say that Noach’s laws are the fruit of Etz ha-Da’at Tov va-Ra, ripened in time, whereas Moshe’s are the fruit of the sublime Etz Chayim. Each fruit helps restore us toward the grace that was Adam’s birthright.

And when we arise to be restored, we are rekindled by G-d’s Presence, just as a candle lights an empty wick and retains its own flame still. To extract chen in Biblical terms within our lives today, we sustain intimacy with the relational Presence within ourselves.  The word to pray (lehitpallel) literally means to judge oneself, to question “am I living up to what I see of G-d’s intent for me?” We know that nobody can see G-d’s Face and live (Shemot 33:20). For now, we must be content to live in the penumbra of His light. This is the high essence of halakha, to live righteously through the Commandments. This is our generous re-generation.

Finally, chen may be read as an acronym for chochmah nistarah—hidden wisdom, latent in the mystery. G-d maintains a character dialogue of grace and compassion with anyone who seeks His intimacy, so that our common mystery may become manifest. Wisdom stems from the humble enacting of mitzvot in G-d-awareness. Knowing that G-d is constantly conscious of us, we emulate the sanctity of awareness in kind by striving to return the favour.

Pursuing accord and alignment with attunement and awareness is a lifelong harmony-home of health. What is the tzelem Elokim, the Image of G-d we all bear but the Light of our Creation we are free to imbibe? To see this Light within ourselves compels us to find its match within others. In our flicker we see the precious fragility in the treasure of life. Yirat HaShem, the fear of G-d, reminds us of the present’s evanescence. To live with grace is to follow our destiny b’Tzelem Elokim. Nobody sullies their soul. Though we can soil the shell of it, the soul itself is incorruptible, always ready to be present and re-employed. Amen.

2016, Rabbi Ronnie Cahana with Jay Alexander Brown


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