Drash for Shemini, By Rabbi Heather Miller (April 17, 2015)
As I mentioned earlier in the service, Jewish theology has morphed over the centuries. “Morphed” is a better word than “evolved” because “evolved” sounds like you’re getting somewhere better, but really, it’s just “morphed.”
Jewish understandings of God went from this exacting figure, this person who provides rain if they behaved, this ancient sensory, stern and exacting figure, to a rabbinic Supreme academic scholar/ a rabbi of rabbis. Guess what you got to do in the afterlife when you met God? Study of course! And you didn’t need to take breaks for anything, you just get to study at God’s foot because God was a Supreme Rabbi. In Medieval times, God morphed again into a spiritual and ephemeral force, a highly personalized spirit. And then, in the modern era, with the experience of the Holocaust, we Jews were confronted with a whole other lens of experience by which to understand God– through questions:
Is God omnipotent?
Where is God?
Does God care about us?
Did God just create the world and then leave?
Or, does God even exist?
Holding onto all of these ideas and all of these questions, we ask, what would it be like to encounter God today– each of us?
There is a term that describes encountering holiness of the Divine– and that is beholding the k’vod Adonai– the glory of God.
It first appears in Parashat Beshallach which describes the Israelites encountering God in two extremely different situations and they’re right back to back in Exodus 16:
1) Ex. 16:6-7 teaches us that: “You shall know that the Lord has brought you out from the land of Egypt…and… you shall see the glory of God.”
This first text shows us that God’s glory is apparent when we have just experienced a great and wondrous miracle. How many of us feel close to the Divine at glorious moments in our lives– births, weddings, when we reach academic or career goals? It’s easy to feel God’s presence in each of those moments. Backed right up to that idea comes another view in Exodus 16:10:
2) It suggests that: “The children of Israel… looked toward the wilderness and, behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.”
This shows us that we, as humans, are prone to experiencing God bamidbar/in the wilderness, that is, in the wild, harsh experiences of life. How many of us have felt a close sense of the Divine at those down and out moments– in the midst of a car crash or devastating medical diagnosis, or in the middle of a divorce or when laid off from work?
What these two texts, which are recited one after the next in the Torah, teach us is that in experiences as varied as these two extremes which suggests everything inbetween as well, potentially are opportunities for us to experience the Divine.
The question is: how attuned are we to experiencing it in these extreme situations and everything inbetween?
The question we ask today especially is: how did those who experienced the Holocaust, who witnessed unimaginable atrocities, experience God?
Shoah scholar Dr. Melissa Raphael notes that survivors typically experienced God in one of two ways. Those who had previously experienced God’s glory through worship and liturgy felt a profound absence of God during their experiences, because they weren’t allowed to worship or uphold the rituals that bound them with the presence of God. Thus, after their liberation, were left with nothing but questions and a deep sense of loss.
However, those who had previously experienced God’s glory through interpersonal relationships and acts of loving-kindness were able to continue their sense that God was with them, even in the death camps, as they identified the smallest gestures of grace and compassion between one another as the presence of God. Thus, when they emerged from the Holocaust, they affirmed, sometimes more strongly than ever, an ever-present and loving God.
So, perhaps encounters with God, or the experience of the Divine, is less about what one experiences throughout life, and more about how one meets those experiences. As the adage goes: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”
So, the question isn’t “do you believe in God” as if God was a static concept– but rather “God” is a descriptive term– for that entity or being or force that will give you strength and comfort at your lowest moments, magnify your highest moments, and encourage you to be your best.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we learn that Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting and came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord (k’vod Adonai) appeared to all the people. (Leviticus 9:23)
In the same way that we are told that each Israelite understood every one of the commandments according to his own way of learning, we hear here in this text that kol ha-am- all the people were endowed with the capacity to feel the presence of the glory of God no matter what that meant. And that applies today.
And, so, as people of the post-Holocaust modern era, we ask ourselves– what is it for us to experience kavod Adonai/ the glory of God? What would that look like?
Ultimately, each person decides for themselves. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.