“Apotheosis” comes from the Greek ἀποθεόω meaning “to deify” or “become divine.” The term refers to an individual or group that has been elevated to godlike stature. Historical examples include the Hellenistic leader Philip II of Macedonia and most of the Roman emperors. Here is the famous painting, “The Apotheosis of Homer,” by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).
In Ingres’ imagination, Homer rises above the human realm to join the divine beings in heaven.
The type of apotheosis our Sages have in mind, as reflected in the teaching of R. Chama b. Chanina in Sotah 14a is quite different: one becomes most godlike when one engages in the difficult, uncomfortable, and messy work of caring for those most vulnerable and most hurting here on earth in this world.
The Sages are discussing the location of Moses’ burial site. It has been suggested that it is a magical, mystical place that no human can locate, or perhaps that it is located near Baal-Peor to atone for the egregious sin committed there (see account in Numbers chapter 25). Into this discussion a teaching of R. Chama b. Chanina is inserted because his last (of four) points relates directly to the burial of Moses:
R. Chama b. Chanina further said: What is the meaning of the text: You shall walk after the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:5)? Is it even possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; for has it not been said: For the Lord your God is a devouring fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)? But [the meaning is] to follow after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God. Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21), so should you also clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, as it is written: And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1), so should you also visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, as it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son (Genesis 25:11), so should you also comfort mourners. Just as the Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, as it is written: And [God] buried him in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6), so should you also bury the dead.Four specific behaviors are mentioned:
- Clothing the naked
- Visiting the sick
- Comforting the bereaved
- Burying the dead
R. Chama b. Chanina teaches us that being godlike does not mean sitting on a throne and having an angel crown us with an olive wreath or elevate us out of this world to the heavenly realm. Apotheosis occurs when, like God, we attend with our own hands those most in need, most in pain. We raise ourselves to heaven when we become most human.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman