What is God?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Not even Moses could know what God is—“For man cannot know Me while alive” (Exod. 33:20)—but we can know what God has performed. Our initial morning blessing, “Baruch She’amar” isolates fundamental truths about what God is. We marvel at the prophets and rabbis, whose words form our blessings, as their blessings are formulated with precise wording, and order. This blessing is a fine example of a logical hierarchy of ideas:

Blessed Who spoke, and the world came into being, blessed is He.

Blessed the Maker of the beginning. 

Blessed Who says and acts. 

Blessed Who decrees and fulfills. 

Blessed Who has compassion on Earth.

Blessed Who has compassion on the creatures. 

Blessed Who rewards well those who fear Him.

Blessed Who lives forever and exists eternally.

Blessed Who redeems and saves.

Blessed is His Name. 

“Blessed Who spoke, and the world came into being, blessed is He.”

“Spoke” is not literal, for no one existed to whom God could talk. “Spoke” means God willed the universe to exist. With His will alone, He created the universe. That is astonishing.

This first statement is followed by “Blessed is He” while all other statements are not. Why? God as the “sole creator” is the most defining truth about who God is. All else that exists requires Him to exist. This truth is most praiseworthy. For man praises that which impresses him most. “Blessed is He” is akin to “I, I, for My own sake, wipe your transgressions away and remember your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). Why the repetition of “I, I”?  For if the verse said, “I wipe your transgression aways,” we would understand the focus to be that, “God forgives.” But by saying, “I, I forgive”  the message is different: that God “and no other” can forgive man. 

This first blessing praises God—and no other—as He willed the universe into existence, and for this amazing act, we say Blessed is “He” and no other. This is God’s unity. 

“Blessed the Maker of the beginning” 

Aitz Yosef says this refers to God’s sustainment of creation. This is a vital point. Many think that once God creates something, that existence now has no further need for God, since existence is thought to be inextricably part of that thing. But this is patently wrong. Without God also sustaining what He creates, creation of a thing does not dictate that it endures: it would come into existence and then vanish into nothingness. It is only with 2 wills from God that creations endure: 1) God wills something to come into existence, and 2) God wills it to continue. “Creating the beginning” implies that creations have a beginning to speak of, but anything with a beginning by definition also has existence past its beginning. I can speak of the beginning of a ruler, at inch #1. It’s end is inch #12. But a mathematical point has no measure; it has no size, but refers to an exact location. It has no beginning or end. We can locate a point only by referring to what is to its left or right. But creations are here after their beginning so man might refer to them “now,” and he may refer to them earlier: at their beginning. Man referring to a creation now, means that creation has endurance, given to it by God. By definition, this also teaches that God created time for all matter to experience a lifespan or a duration. 

Therefore, this second blessing praises God for creating time and enabling creations to endure. Time and matter’s duration were created together with God’s will for the universe to emerge.

“Blessed Who says and acts”

There is no consideration unknown to God. What He says (wills) equates exactly to what He does. He is not ignorant of any consideration, so all His plans are fully realized and succeed.

This third blessing praises God’s omniscience.

“Blessed Who decrees and fulfills”

Nothing prevents God’s enactment of His will. 

This fourth blessing praises God’s omnipotence.

“Blessed Who has compassion on earth”

Compassion means to help what is in need. Earth is inanimate; compassion or mercy cannot apply to rocks and soil which have no needs. This compassion must be in terms of how Earth relates to mankind. God’s creation of Earth was designed around mankind: his objective to search out God through His wisdom embedded in Earth and Torah. 

This fifth blessing praises God for designing mankind’s habitat in a fashion that enables our objective. 

“Blessed Who has compassion on the creatures”

God granted man free will. Through it, man is the only creature who errs and sins, veering from his path towards perfection. God’s compassion is expressed in miracles and interventions as concessions to man’s needs and forgiveness for his sins. God desires man’s ultimate good, so we praise God with this sixth praise for His tolerance and intervention to guide us. 

Blessed Who rewards well those who fear Him”

God designed man with the capacity to enjoy earthly life in Torah study, and earn eternal blissful existence. This is the great good God intends for man and why God created Earth (Rashi on Pirkei Avos 2:8). We cannot praise God enough for offering us such goodness and pleasure. 

“Blessed Who lives forever and exists eternally”

This qualifies the eternity of the reward received by righteous men and women. As God is eternal, he can eternally reward good people (Aitz Yosef).

“Blessed Who redeems and saves”

God also is compassionate on those who need redemption to enjoy eternal life. He redeems those with faults and sins and saves them from losing eternal life. 

“Blessed is His Name”

As stated at the outset, we cannot know what God is; all we know is His name, His fame. After having described many praises, we must be on guard to remain in check that we do not formulate any notion of God’s essence by projecting human qualities onto Him. Therefore we conclude with our statement of complete ignorance of His essential nature and we bless only His name.