Parashat Hashavua for Va'era
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
THE PRESENCE OF GOD
In the opening weeks of reading from the book of Shemot, we come across Judaism’s three major ways of understanding how God manifests in our lives. The first two appear in last week’s parashah, the third in this week’s. First, Judaism defines God as the creator of all existence of which we are part; second, Judaism reasons that since we emanate from and are connected to the infinite source of life, we can communicate on a certain level with it; and thirdly, we have responsibilities within this life. Traditionally, Jews understand God as the one who creates, reveals and redeems; this rubric has been adopted by Christianity and Islam as well.
Last week, standing at the burning bush, Moshe encounters God for the first time. He asks God to name itself, and is told: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”, which is virtually not translatable, but essentially means “I Am that which I Am” or “I Am becoming that which I Am becoming”, or a permutation of those ideas. In other words, Judaism teaches that God is a verb, a form of “to be”, and thus God=Being. I am always puzzled when people say “I do not believe in God.” It is as if one says, “I do not believe in being”, which considering we are being is a hard position to hold. Either all that exists manifested out of nothing, or out of being. There is no way to ultimately prove how what is, is. Each of us senses one thing or another. In humility, we must at least acknowledge the mystery of it all.
We Jews are not just a people, but a faith people, as taught in the Shema. Over the millennia, Jews have chosen to live with faith, as if all that is emanates from being, not nothing. Assuming God is being, and we are part of that being since we exist, then it follows that on one level each of us draws down the smallest aspect of God’s being or consciousness. The spiritual path, however it manifests, is an attempt to connect with that ultimate presence. This is what we mean by God Reveals – as in the communications that happen between God and Moshe, or in a few weeks time, the communication that happens between God and the ancestors of the Jews, the children of Israel who stand at Sinai to receive the commandments. The questioning of God’s existence has more to do with the stories told about God as opposed to the possibility that there is one source of all that exists that we call God. Outside of Orthodox understandings of religion – no matter what the religion – practitioners choose to follow the received traditions as the valued ancestral attempt to draw down God’s consciousness. The Torah is our story of how we have understood and choose to live that life.
Each religion has its own story. The essence of the story of our ancestors, the path of redemption that we are called to walk, is told at the beginning of this week’s parashah, where God again reveals in a speech to Moses that famous passage that makes its way to our Haggadah and forms the basis of the four cups of wine at the Seder and the cup of Elijah. God tells Moshe (and the children of Israel), “I will free you ... I will deliver you .. I will redeem you ... and I will take you ... and I will bring you into the land. In other words, the crucial event of our past is the being freed from the slavery in Egypt in order to come to the land of Israel where we are to serve God as a model nation. We can always discuss the finer parts of the story, the details of what has been revealed, but we should understand that our conversation is not as much about God Itself, as to what it means to serve God. Each individual has his or her way; each people its. These crucial stories at the beginning of Exodus establish that the story of Israel is one that takes us as a nation from servitude to humans to service to God, and thus life and all that is.