Appearing Before God

Moshe Ben-Chaim

In Deuteronomy, 16:16, we find the command for males to appear before God (in front of the Temple) three times a year; on Passover, Tabernacles and on the Festival of Weeks. The passage reads thus:
"Three times yearly, there shall appear all males - to the face of God your God - in the chosen place; on the holiday of Unleavened Bread, the holiday of Weeks, and the on the holiday of Tabernacles, and you shall not see the face of God empty handed."
The Amoraim, those who succeeded the authors of the Mishna (Oral law) argued regarding to who we refer to by the the term "appear". The Hebrew word "yay-ra-eh" means to appear. This can apply to God appearing to man, and visa versa, man appearing before God. Rabbi Yochanan b. Dahavai explained it as referring to God, meaning, man must place himself in the situation where God appears to him. Rabbeinu Tam explained it referring to man appearing before God.
Rabbeinu Tam explains his reasoning as follows: There are two versions of the structure of the word; There is "yay-ra-eh", meaning "to appear" before someone. And there is "yi-ra-eh", meaning "to look". The former is the actual written form located in the Torah script, while the latter is the accepted pronunciation. We have this many times in the Torah, we call it the "ksiv" and the kri", the written and the spoken forms, respectively. These dual word forms are Masoretic (Traditional) vehicles for passing down additional teachings, unavailable without the additional word form.
Rabbi Yochanan b. Dahavai held that we use the orally transmitted forms of words as starting points in Biblical exegesis. This means that the term "to look" can apply to both God and man, as both can do the act of looking, in some sense. But this allowed Rabbi Yochanan b. Dahavai to entertain this passage as referring to God. To this, Rabbeinu Tam objected,
"...we do not form Torah explanations based on oral transmission. The primary and authentic explanation must be rooted and commenced in the written form of the Torah, and only then do we look to oral transmission for embellishment. But the primary teaching must emanate from the written form." (Paraphrased)
Since this is the case, the written text literally means "to appear". Rabbeinu Tam explained that this is impossible in application to God's actions. He cannot "appear in the Temple" to be "seen" by man, as God does not occupy space. Therefore, this written form of "appear" must apply to man. Thereby defining the command as "man must appear before God." (The additional instance of "yih-ra-eh" in this verse also applies to man - being the same word form - and thereby is interpreted that man must also "see". The Rabbis derive from this second instance that blind men are exempt from this command). We have now clarified the command to be "man's obligation to travel to the Temple, appearing before God". Man only is commanded - as opposed to women - and only those men with eyesight.
We now observe a fascinating statement recorded by the Marsha: "Man must appear before God's two eyes, and even man must come to see God with man's two eyes." This is truly astonishing. What can be meant by "God's two eyes"? He is not physical, His knowledge is not based on vision. God has no organs.
As always, we must ask properly, formulated questions to arrive at true answers. How shall we formulate this question? I would suggest as follows: "What do two eyes convey, why not one eye?" Well, two eyes means to me, that something was in full vision, that is, both eyes saw it. But again, in relation to God, how can we apply the term "vision"? But perhaps, "full vision", means not that sight exists with God, but that God beheld something which occupied His 'vision', or, His interest. He was so to speak, "looking" at that which interests Him. What interests God about man? The answer is man's performance of the Torah. We may suggest that "God's two eyes" mean that God took full note of man's action by appearing at the Temple, in accordance with this Torah command. The medrash is relating to us that which "caught God's eyes". It is an important phenomenon when Jews appear before God in the Temple.
This being the case, how can the medrash go on to state that we in turn must have our two eyes working - literally - in order to participate in this command? Why should the Rabbis take a metaphoric gesture, God's eyes, and incorporate it as a physical action which prohibits blind men from attendance?
Here we find a beautiful idea: The fact that God looked at our fulfillment of this command with "both His eyes", conveys, as we said, the idea that this command is set apart from all others. There is some element in this appearance before God, which "fills God's vision", i.e., it is most favorable to Him. The Rabbis interpreted the second instance of "yay-ra-eh" to mean an exclusion of all blind men. They were saying that this very concept of God's delight in man must somehow permeate the very maaseh mitzvah - the act of the command. How did the Rabbis determine that the action together with the concept makes this specific mitzvah so important? They decided to characterize our action with the element of God's delight as is demonstrated by requiring that we too have full vision. This full vision displayed by all attendees at the Temple, reflects the very nature of this mitzvah as one which man performs in God's delight.
What do I mean by God's delight? It is a state in man, where God commands man in this single act which epitomizes man's ultimate state of perfection. This inevitably thrusts our quest onto the specific design of this command: "What purpose may we find in the act of traveling to the Temple, simply to "appear" before God? (I isolate appearing from the obligation of sacrifice, for the passage clearly separates the two - "do not see God's face empty handed" is a subsequent embellishment on the primary obligation of appearance.) Why on the three Holidays? Why is this not applicable to women? Is it only the principle of "zman gerama" (time-bound commands) which exempts the women? Or is it something more basic in the command itself?"
Man's goal is to come to his greatest appreciation of the Creator. This - by definition - requires a 100% conviction in God's existence. Above all else, we must view this as absolute truth. We must also acknowledge that His system is perfect for man, meaning, all God's ways are just, as it is written, (Gen. 18:17):
"And God said, 'Shall I keep hidden from Abraham that which I do? While Avraham will become a great and might nation, and all there will bless him all the nations of the land. For I know in him that he will command his sons and his household after himself, and he will guard the path of God, to do charity and justice..."
God immediately informed Abraham of His plan to destroy Sodom and Ammorah. Had Abraham awakened after the destruction of the city, he would not have learned the fine intricacies of God's justice, but only that the people were corrupt and deserved obliteration - as with the Flood. However, God 'invited' Abraham to discussions, which was followed by Abraham's defense of Sodom. Abraham exclaimed, "the Judge of the Earth won't execute justice?"
Abraham did not ask this as a question but stated it as a certainty, as God does not answer him on this. God only answers Avraham's true query, i.e., whether the merits of some, can save others. Abraham asked this, as he was not learned in certain ideas of charity. This is beyond natural observation - beyond the idea that each man pays for his own sins, and each merits his own rewards. Abraham now realized that God's invite in this decision making process must mean that there are other considerations which he could not arrive at without God's intervention. Proof of the hidden quality of this idea is that God saves people based not only on THEIR OWN merits, is God's own words, "Shall I keep hidden from Abraham that which I do?" The reason for this engagement is also clearly taught, "that he will command his sons and his household after himself". For Abraham to be a leader, he must lead with accurate knowledge.
What is the unique quality in the command to appear before God? This act is to demonstrate that we admit to God's existence. We do this by traveling to a place known only for His glory. There is no other attraction at the Temple mount. Besides a desire to approach God, there is no other reason for observing this as a commandment. Additionally, observing this as a commandment simultaneously demonstrates our conviction that this command, this representation of God's system, is completely just, and ought to be followed. Men are obligated, as men are the ones charged with Torah teaching and learning. Endorsement of the system of Torah must be via those who carry the full weight of the system.
The reason this command is to be performed at the holidays, is that these holidays are samples of man acting at his most pristine level of existence. Therefore these days must be inextricably bound up with the concept of Torah adherence - this is man's sole purpose. On these days, man is prohibited from labor, he must divert his attention and activities from the mundane to the sublime - from the physical pursuits, to the spiritual. On these days, man's focus is redirected solely to God's existence, and the system of his perfection. His appearance at the Temple embodies these ideas.
Appearance at the Temple three times a year to be performed on the holidays is an endorsement of our complete belief in God, and His just system. This action is so grand, God beholds our appearance, as it were possible, with "both eyes".