One of my students recently asked me, “You always say God is everywhere, but sometimes I find it hard to see. How do you see God in everything?” I have been thinking about this question a lot, especially since we read in this week’s Torah portion, “And let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
Why did the Israelites even need a sanctuary in the first place? Was it hard for the Israelites to see God everywhere? After all, they had just witnessed the miracles and wonders of the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Reed Sea. What other physical evidence did they need?
Luckily, this question has troubled thoughtful people of all religions for many centuries. It is the kind of question that people usually answer by writing a book, not answer on one foot, caught off-guard. But here, in a nutshell, is my more thoughtful answer:
It’s true that Jewish tradition teaches that God is in everything, that God’s presence pervades the universe — that there is nothing, in fact, that is not God. Yes, that means God is in something as mundane as a vacuum cleaner or as painful as the loss of a childhood pet or arguments between parents and children.
I do believe that God is evident in the beauty, order, elegance and coherence of the natural world. It is easy to feel a sense of awe when you see one of those spectacular Phoenix sunsets or stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon. What is hard is to see God in things that are ordinary or ugly or evil!
Here is where I, and some contemporary theologians, differ with our tradition. Instead of beginning with the assumption that God pervades all reality, I ask myself: Where is God in this situation? Sometimes the answer is clear to me. The vacuum cleaner is fashioned by human beings using their God-given gift of intelligence to do something useful in the world. God is not the one who made the machine, but God is the one who implants a spark of curiosity in the human mind, and the drive to create and figure things out and make things better.
What about when our pet dies? Where is God in that situation? God is present in the process of personal grieving, when we remember the positive memories of snuggling with our pets. And God is present when we choose to love again and continue to go on with our lives.
I believe, as well, that God is present when we as parents and children fight. Even though we may disagree from time to time, and say things that are hurtful and we don’t mean it, God’s love is found in the reconciliation process — when we say we are sorry. God’s love is conveyed in the unconditional love between parents and children; the sort of love that is impenetrable to anger and hurtful words.
Human beings, says a Chasidic teaching, are the language of God. God communicates through us; God acts through us; God comes into the world through our actions. So if we are there, doing our best to be there for each other and do justice and create beauty and make peace, then God is there. And the opposite is also true. If a situation is empty of human care and concern, then as far as I am concerned, God is absent as well.
So in the end, it all depends on us. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider, RJE, is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami and the immediate past-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.