The Ineffable

When I was an English teacher at a Jewish Day school in Johannesburg, I taught a lot of Shakespeare and a considerable volume of Victorian poetry. Both these categories of literature make a lot of reference to God, and in particular a Christian version of God. In their essays and assignments, I noticed a lot of my students would write the word God with the ‘o’ missing – G_d. It confounded me, and initially, I used to put a question mark in red pen above the word. I thought it was a quirky way to imply a ‘What the…?’ kind of attitude that made me ‘modern’ with the ‘kids’.

Then one day, Thalia Greenberg told me that the reason the students did this was because, as humans, we could not and should not try to contain the essence of God in just a few letters. יהוה (YHWH) is the Hebrew name for God, but Lord, Elohim, Adonai, HaShem are some of the words used to say God in the Jewish faith. These are more aspects of God (like Mercy and Sovereignty) rather than the actual name of God. In fact, some modern Jews will not pronounce the word יהוה (YHWH) out loud because it is not for mortals to say that which is beyond mortal comprehension. This is done out of utter respect for the ineffability of God.

The Hindus have a similar response to Krishna with 108 different names for Lord Krishna. Nothing can quite capture the name of God and all Its permutations. This idea of trying to express the inexpressible has stayed with me now for some 25 years and I have always found the human desire to understand a God-force to be intriguing. I actually think the incomplete word G_d or the multiple variations of the words for God is a very beautiful way to denote a humble, human regard for powers far greater than us that may be at work in all our lives.

I have mentioned before that my family runs with some very loose, high level rules. Tracking alongside these rules are some rituals that, through practice, have become the way our family is made a family rather than a collection of close house mates. One of our rituals is sharing our evening meal together. From the age my children could eat real food we have endeavoured to make the evening meal a shared experience. Our family just works better if we can have this single connection point at least once a day.

As the kids have got older our dinner is accompanied by the conversations about one another’s day. What was enjoyable, what was your great achievement of the day, who irritated who, what’s causing stress and what made you laugh or cry? We get to plug into each other’s lives and recharge on what matters to each of us. There are some nights when after these dinner chats I am filled with a sense of such contentment. It is like our lives are all humming in symphonic harmony – it is  how I imagine the music of the spheres must sound. (Of course some nights our harmonies are way off – we are not the Brady Bunch.)

Before my wife and I became engaged we went on a holiday around Zimbabwe. We were on safari in a game reserve called Hwange National Park and when we were deep in the bush land our guide encountered a rogue male elephant in musth. Bull elephants annually experience a state of heightened aggressiveness, which is called musth. A musth elephant is primed to mate, and fights other bull elephants, attacks other animals, and may destroy inanimate objects in its way. In human terms its like 7,000kgs of pre-menstrual tension exerted against the world.

Unfortunately our fearless guide, Mark, went too close to Mr Musthy and what ensued was a near death experience. To this day I can still recall the game ranger’s girlfriend (who was travelling with us ‘for the fun of it’) hysterically screaming, “*&$# Mark, we’re all going to die!” Miraculously the elephant retreated one final time and another vehicle arrived to help us escape. And we all lived to tell the tale.

In that moment of a close encounter with death, I can tell you there was a surreal calmness, a perfect clarity about my desire to survive and a slowing down of the speed of life. I think collectively we willed that massive beast to retreat and to shift his aggression to some other irritant. The flood of supreme joy at surviving was something I have experienced on only three other occasions in my life.


It’s these types of feelings that fascinate me. I love that feeling when I am reading a book and it’s so magnificently brilliant I simultaneously cannot stop reading but feel I must stop reading because when it ends my fulfilment will expire. I love how beautiful works of art can transport me to other realms. I love how a simple family conversation can make me feel like my place in world is as it should be. I love how you can have a moment talking to someone or surviving an experience (like a raging bull elephant) and be forever transformed.

When these moments happen, I know something magnanimous has occurred. I cant quite say what it is – there is no word or words for it. It’s ineffable – I know I am taken to some higher state of being in the world.

I call these moments: ‘Touching G_d’.

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