September 5, 2002
I love to ask students of all ages a spiritual and revealing question: "When have you felt the presence of God in your lives?" I love to ask this question because the answers students give often inspire. Let me share some typical answers.
I feel God's presence when I show kindness, concern and love to others and when others show kindness, concern and love to me. I feel God's presence when I see people listen to one another and treat one another with dignity and respect. I feel God's presence when people help others in need.
I feel God's presence when people respect the world and treat it with dignity, when they treat animals well and when they recycle and reuse old things. I feel God's presence when I am with family and other Jews and we do Jewish rituals and mitzvot, like lighting Shabbat candles, saying the "HaMotzi" before eating and sanctifying a holiday with the "Kiddush" over wine. I feel God's presence when I am praying in synagogue. I feel God's presence when I study Torah.
I feel God's presence when I see a rainbow, the mountains, the sunset at the beach. I feel God's presence when I sit back and notice nature and feel the awe and wonder of God's creation. I felt God's presence when I experienced the birth of a child.
In the very beginning of the book of Genesis, in Bereshit, it says "V'yivrah Elohim et Adam betzalmo, Betzelem Elohim barah otoh." It says that "God created Adam [people] in God's own image, in the image of God, God created him [them]." When I think about the answers that students give to the question of when they have felt God's presence, I feel they give a glimpse of what it means to be created in the Divine image.
On the other hand, in the same Torah portion of Bereshit, at the beginning of the second creation story, it says something very different about human origins. It says "Va'yizer Adonai Elohim et Adam afar min ha'Adamah," that "God formed Adam [people] from the dust of the earth." The name Adam, the primordial person, and the term Adamah, the earth, both derive from the same Hebrew root letters. In the creation story, there is a clear connection between Adam and the earth. That connection is eternal. There is an earthlike quality that characterizes human existence.
None of us will live forever. We, like all of God's other creations, have a base side to our existence. We are destined, as a Midrash states, " to eat, drink, procreate and die."
This earthlike quality is something that is necessary for every human being to possess in order to live in the world. At the same time, however, it also is something that can lead to acts of dishonesty and cruelty. It is the side that can lead to evil.
It does not take much imagination to come up with examples of human evil. On a daily basis, the media bombards us with more than an ample number of illustrations.
Human evil, though, is not something that we only see on TV or read about in newspapers or on the Internet. The potential to perform evil is something that we, when we are honest looking at ourselves, each individually possess.
Norman Cohen, professor of Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, writes in his book, "Self, Struggle and Change," that there is tension between our Godlike potential and our very human nature. He asks, "How at one moment can we perform acts of love and kindness that represent our highest potential, yet immediately there after be hurtful, even to those whom we profess to love? In our most honest self reflections, we know we are capable of doing both -- both the good and the bad."
Cohen points to Oscar Schindler (the German entrepreneur who saved some 1,100 Polish Jewish lives during the Holocaust) as perhaps the best example that illustrates the polarity between our divine potential and our human nature.
Cohen writes "Schindler was a drunkard and a womanizer ... who mistreated his wife while maintaining relationships with several girlfriends.... During the German war effort, he realized that he could produce kitchenware and sell it on the black market and make huge profits.
"Yet, in the course of building his enamelware business, he got to know the Polish Jews who worked for him and came to treat them as human beings. Unlike his Nazi colleagues, he could not countenance any effort to dehumanize his Jews. Schindler built his own barracks so they would not have to be put in a concentration camp, and he prevented their deportation by bribing German officers and forging documents. He did all of this at the risk of his own life. In the end, he was even willing to move his entire factory to the Sudetenland in late 1944 to save his Jews.
"Perhaps what most symbolized the two sides of Oscar Schindler was the ring presented to him on V.E. Day, May 8, 1945, when he fled as Allied forces approached. Gold teeth, taken from one of the workers, were fashioned into a ring inscribed to Schindler and given to him by those lives he had saved. The ring epitomized their [ultimate] respect for this human being.... Sixteen year late, Oscar Schindler came to Israel and was welcomed by a throng of those he protected. They asked him about the ring ... he replied that he had sold it for schnapps."
Animals roam the earth and live life on instincts. We human beings are very capable of living life at that level of existence. On the other hand, I have faith that there is a divine realm where God resides and where the souls of the most righteous and pure go and live after death.
Most of us, though, are flawed. Most of us are probably not on the verge of living in eternal peace with God but are destined, it seems, to live life struggling between our Godlike potential and the earthlike quality that characterizes our very human nature.
This predicament, if it is true, does not need to lead to nihilism. Life can still be worth living even if our souls may need to occupy a few more life forms and perform a few more good deeds before they are eligible to obtain the exalted position of being at rest with the Divine.
A Chasid once asked, "Where is God?" His rebbe answered, "God is there whenever you let God in." The challenge of life is not trying to reach perfection. Perhaps the challenge of life is merely trying to perform a few more acts of kindness and goodness so that the doors of our lives can be open more often and a little wider to a glimmer of the Divine presence.