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January 25, 2007

Divine Presence

Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/divine_presence_20070126

As I tucked my kids into bed recently, one of them asked me, "How do we know where God is? How do we find God?"

It was both an amazing moment (that day school and synagogue are paying off) and a terrifying moment. I needed to provide an answer that was honest, but one they could grasp. A theological treatise from Rabbi Heschel was not going to suffice.

I told them that God was all around us, in our hearts, in the kindness they showed and experience, in the beautiful mountains surrounding our home.

And while my explanation seemed to allay my children, I knew there would be more moments like this. It inspired me to consider where I find God in the world.

As we journey through Exodus we see the God of great power and might, the God who sends plagues, attacks Egypt and toys with Pharaoh's heart, all while trying to impress both the Israelites and Egyptians.

Many of us crave this God -- not necessarily for the exact actions God takes, but for the mere fact that God acts in this real, visible way.

Many of us would like to see the God of Exodus operating in our lives, sending visible and obvious miracles, saving lives, swooping down and liberating us on the wings of eagles, taking us to a better and more prosperous life in a promised land. Certainly my kids would love the action-packed God of Parshat Bo. Plagues, drama, confrontation, good vs. evil -- they can understand this. It's like the Buzz Lightyear moment of the Torah.

But our world doesn't operate like this anymore. The God of Exodus was a one-time moment in history, one that we recount and recollect each year at Pesach. Belief in God and the ability to find the Divine's presence in our lives would be easier if we lived in a world where God operated with overt miracles.

With all the talk of plagues and miracles in Exodus, we rarely talk about the amazing connection the matriarchs and patriarchs had to God in Genesis. In Bereshit Rabbah, the great midrashic compilation on Genesis, we find God fondly recollecting the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, when they believed in God and didn't question the Holy One's ways, even without outward or miraculous proof.

In the midrash, God tells Moses about these times in a very nostalgic way, as a contrast to the way Moses immediately questions God at the burning bush, asks God for God's name and doubts whether anyone will believe him when he announces the presence of this great Deity.

I ultimately believe that we could not function in the world as humans with free will if God continued to intercede like God did in Egypt.

This is not to say that God doesn't act in the world; God does.

However, the Creator's actions are visible through the works of our hands, the deeds of our hearts and the commitments of our lives to the values and dreams spelled out for us in the Torah and subsequent religious teachings of yesterday and today. This is how I understand tzimtzum, the kabbalistic notion of God needing to recede in the background of reality in order to allow for all the rest of creation to operate fully and freely. We can have emunah, or faith, precisely because God provided space for that to emerge.

The very last verse of this week's parsha reminds us how we are to recapture a sense of awe and wonder for God in our world: "And it shall be a sign on your hand and a symbol between your eyes that with a mighty hand God brought us forth from Egypt" (Exodus 13:16).

While we cannot go back to Egypt or a time when God worked miracles in such visible ways, the Torah is teaching us that through the ritual acts, in this case wearing tefillin each morning, we can remind ourselves of the miracles that God once did, and inspire ourselves to look for the miracles that God continues to do for us each and every day.

On this verse, the great sage Nachmanides said, "And the purpose of all the commandments is that we believe in our God and be thankful to God for having created us...." Each day is a miracle, each breath is a miracle, each moment is a miracle.

When we love the stranger, that is a miracle; when we stand up for justice, that is a miracle; when we are grateful for this life, that is a miracle.

This is what I need to remind my children; this is my answer to their queries about God.

And when we say the "Shema" each night, this is what I now ask them to think about.

It is interesting that the God of Exodus, the very God our people did not believe in or wish to follow, is the one many of us long for in our lives. I would argue that we are, perhaps, longing for the wrong aspect of God. Why are we not longing more for the relationship of our first family, a relationship that was based on subtle insights to God, dreams, visions, feelings and faith, not supernatural miracles?

To me, that is a more profound and interesting relationship with the Divine. This approach to God might yield more fruit in our lives. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center and serves as the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. He can be reached at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

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