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Pluralistic PerspectivesThe Divine Presence in Time and Space

Lord, where shall I find You?

Your place is lofty and secret.

And where shall I not find You?

The whole earth is full of Your glory! — Judah Ha-Levi (1075-1141)
In ancient times, animal sacrifice at temples and shrines was the primary form of worship and it was believed necessary in order to bring God’s presence into the midst of the community. This “potent presence” of God was understood as the source of victory, blessing and wellbeing. This idea of special holy places, however, produced a dilemma: If God is omnipresent then why was it necessary to create special consecrated places where people could approach and experience the divine? The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE did not eliminate this problem: If God is everywhere, why do we need synagogues as places of worship? Prayer replaced sacrifice to invoke the potent presence, but prayers can be recited anywhere and at any time, so why do people still feel the need for a special holy center of spiritual concentration? This tension between the existential need for a particular place and time of divine manifestation and the theological understanding of a universe filled with the divine is expressed in this week’s parashah (Torah portion).

In the parashah is the well-known story of the 12 spies who are sent by Moses at the command of God to scout out the land of Canaan. They return, and 10 of the spies claim that despite the fact that the land is good, rich and “flowing with milk and honey,” it is also filled with fierce tribes and giants. The Israelites are like “grasshoppers” and will be “devoured” by the land. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, give a minority report, expressing faith and confidence that God will allow them to prevail over the inhabitances as God had promised. The vast majority of the people, however, are terrified, and even start thinking of returning to Egypt. They somehow believe that God, who has taken them out of Egypt, led them through the Reed Sea, spoke to them from Mount Sinai, and provided them with food and water, is a localized god who cannot be present in the land of Canaan. Their idea of God is a divinity limited in time and space. God gets fed up at the peoples’ continued lack of faith and tells Moses that it is time to destroy them and start again with Moses as a second Abraham. Moses appeals to God’s attribute of mercy, and God relents.

God then says (Numbers 14:20-24) that because of this lack of trust, the people will spend forty years in the desert until a new generation emerges. At the beginning of this speech (14:21) God says, “Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world…” The verb for “fills” is ambiguous and some commentators (like Rashi, influencing the NJPS translation quoted here) take the verb to be in the present tense while others (like Ibn Ezra and Robert Alter in his translation) see the verb as being in the future tense. This creates two completely different ideas of how God’s presence exists in the world. If the verb is in the present tense then it means that God’s presence is universal and always has the power to fulfill God’s promise. If the verb is in the future tense then it means that God has a historical plan in which eventually God’s power will be recognized and actualized throughout the world.

This ambiguity reflects another spiritual tension: there are times when we feel the absence of God in the world; our prayers seem to fall to the ground and evil seems to triumph, but we may still have the hope that God’s presence will return, goodness will prevail and we will feel the light of God in our hearts. There are other times when we believe that God’s presence must always fill the world but God seems distant and hidden. Then as we seek God, the Presence is all around us wherever we are.

There is a midrash where an idolater asks Rabban Gamaliel, “Why did the Holy Blessed One, reveal Himself to Moses out of a bush? ” He replied: “If God had appeared on a carob-tree or on a fig-tree you would have asked me a similar question. I must not, however, let you go unanswered. It serves to teach you that there is no spot unoccupied by the Shechinah (divine presence), and that God would communicate with Moses even from a bush” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 12:4).

It is usually our lack of attention that makes us unable to see the presence of God in the universe. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

The rest sit around and pluck blackberries. — (Aurora Leigh, 1856, Book 7)
We can open our eyes, see the presence of God in our world and in every living thing, and then perhaps cherish life and the world, having hope that this presence will finally be universally recognized. If we do not, then we will continue to treat the world and all it contains as things to be used, abused and discarded. All we need to do is open our spiritual eyes to the holiness all around us. As Ha-Levi wrote in the same poem quoted at the beginning:

I have sought to come near You,

I have called to You with all my heart;

And when I went out towards You,

I found You coming towards me.