Torah | God is here and there,but where can we get a glimpse

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11–34:35

I Kings 18:1–39

One of my greatest joys as a Jewish educator is spending time with young children. Before becoming a rabbi, I used to visit multiple Jewish schools and institutions every week, where I sat on the floor with tiny tots to share Jewish music together. It was there that I learned about a child’s ability to experience the world in a simple and straightforward way. This deceptively simple children’s song illustrates this so clearly: “God is here and God is there, God is truly everywhere. Up, up, down, down, right, left and all around, Here there and everywhere, that’s where God can be found.”

From a pure theological perspective, this may be called pantheism, a doctrine that regards the universe as a manifestation of God. But theology is the last thing on the mind of a 3-year-old. And ditto for doubt, too. Children are concrete thinkers, and for them God is concrete. They are not blocked by the sophistication or the frustration of the abstract. Some of them are pretty darn sure they see God.

And Moses wants this, too. As he deals daily with stiff-necked Israelites, he desperately wants things to be simpler: He just wants to see God. He needs strength, comfort and validation as a leader. He asks and God responds, telling Moses that only God’s goodness will pass in front of him (Exodus 33:21). What exactly does this mean? God clarifies by saying, “Here is a place next to me; station yourself on the rock.” God tells Moses that he will pass by but Moses shall not see God’s face.

What is the significance of this “place” mentioned by God? Rashi, the pre-eminent medieval French commentator, notes that the word “place” refers to wherever God’s spiritual presence dwells. In other words, God’s presence is not just near the rock. God’s presence cannot be contained in one place in the world. That is why the text does not say, “I am in the place,” because this would limit God.

Rashi reminds us that we should not limit our awareness of God to a specific place. God can be found in the supermarket aisle as much as in the sunset on the beach. God is present in our beautiful sanctuaries, but God is also present in the hospital room. In a busy carpool, in the bustling office, at our abundant dining room table, Judaism constantly reminds us to seek God’s presence. And in these settings and others, we encounter other human beings who are made in the image of God.

Many theologians elaborate on this idea. Emmanuel Levinas describes the phenomenon of the face-to-face encounter, the essence of being called by another and responding to that other. Martin Buber teaches us about “I-Thou” moments, in which we encounter the other with a purity of motive and presence. And Elliot Dorff teaches us that we learn about the essence of God through being in relationship with others around us. Indeed, the other is the sacred “place” where we find God.

Like Moses, we may deeply desire to see the face of God. It would be nice to be so sure of God’s presence, just as children are. But we all grow up, encounter the abstract and our childlike faith is shaken by an adult world. So we must seek it out in others. This can be challenging when we encounter others in conflict, experiencing tension, or under other difficult circumstances. Doesn’t it seem that sometimes God is simply not present in every human being? Isn’t it a pretty tall order to find good in absolutely everyone? Yet, this is the challenge that we face. The creation story in the Book of Genesis teaches us that humanity is made in the image of God. This is our challenge: to live out this ideal as we move through the world, as difficult as that may be. Perhaps we should rewrite the words of the song: God’s in you and God’s in me, God’s in those who surround me … Let us aspire to that challenge.

Rabbi Susan Leider
is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected]


Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].