Regularly, some 90 percent of American Christians say they are aware of God’s presence in their lives. Equally regularly, some 90 percent of Jews deny the very same thing. Why is that?
I too grew up thinking the idea of God’s presence in my life preposterous. I had had warm and wonderful Jewish experiences aplenty, mind you — Shabbat dinners, for example. To this day, I recall my mother kindling Shabbat candles, then gathering in its light with her palms and covering her eyes; when she was done, she would watch my father make Kiddush, and then both of them would look at me with unadulterated love. I miss that to this day; I’d like to recapture it; just once, to go home again.
But what did God have to do with it?
Years later I discovered that this hesitancy to acknowledge God is an anomaly in Jewish history. The author of Psalm 22:1 laments, “God, why have you forsaken me?” Only if he knew the reality of God’s presence as the normal state of affairs could he have bemoaned God’s frightening absence. True, the psalmist was unencumbered by science, modernity, and urbane sophistication, but he was certainly not more stupid than we are. He just had a different way of interpreting life’s majesty.
I’ve heard people say, “There are no coincidences!” precisely to describe moments of great coincidence — they dream of their father becoming ill, perhaps, and then hear the next day that he really did get sick the night before. “Coincidence” or not is an interpretation, not a fact. And so too is the presence of God. Was God present in my mother’s loving smile, my father’s gentle touch, the glow of candles, and the onset of Shabbat? At stake is the art of interpretation.
Interpretations need not impute cause; they are not necessarily scientific truths; they are just our paltry human attempts to do justice to life’s experiences. That, says Martin Buber, is how we should read much of the Bible — not as explanation of the facts but as the interpretation the Israelites gave for their experiences: the splitting of the Red Sea, for instance. Who knows what really happened? But whatever it was, the escaping slaves saw it as a miracle. “Miracle” is interpretation; nothing less did justice to what they felt.
So too the bulk of the Book of Exodus, the endless details of constructing the desert tabernacle, which culminate this week in the promise that God will dwell there and meet us. We are to light a ner tamid, a “light to shine regularly” as a symbol of that meeting.
Nowadays, that ner tamid has morphed into an “eternal light” over the synagogue ark — another instance of “light” that I remember from my youth. I never would have thought that God met me in synagogue prayer, either. But the Ba’al Haturim (Jacob ben Asher, c. 1275-1340) expressly connects the lights of home and synagogue. The Gematria (the numerical equivalent) for the opening word of the commandment to light a ner tamid is the same as the Hebrew phrase nashim tsivah, “He [God] commanded women.” Inherent in the commandment to supply a ner tamid, he concludes, is the obligation to kindle Shabbat light, too. These two lights — the ner tamid and Shabbat candles — signal the two most likely places to meet our God: the sanctuary and our Shabbat table.
The point of both lights is to signal the possibility that the divine need not be a stranger to us. God and we can visit together.
Yes, I remember my childhood with my mother lighting candles; my father making Kiddush; and then both of them looking at me with unadulterated love. I am willing to say now that God was present then. And when I say it, I feel as if I really am going home again.