There is an infinite yearning in many people to feel God’s presence, to be in God’s presence. Yet the fulfillment of that yearning is, ultimately, elusive. One moment a person seems to sense God’s presence; in the next moment the feeling is gone. Yet, for that one fleeting moment, that person has had an extraordinary experience. The person would like to replicate it, but it is not easy. It may come again, or it may never come again, but the memory lingers And, still, for some people, such experiences never come. No matter how intense their yearning, it never comes. Yet the yearning persists.
Shavuot is a holiday that, by its themes, seeks to bring us closer to God. And, assuredly, the scriptural readings for Shavuot – from the Torah, the Haftarah selections from the Prophets, and the Megillah of Ruth – all speak, directly or indirectly, to the theme of theophany.
Webster defines “theophany” as “a visible manifestation of a deity.” A manifestation is “a public demonstration of power and purpose.” It is “an act, process, or instance” of becoming manifest – which, in turn, means “readily perceived by the senses, especially by sight,” or “easily understood or recognized by the mind.”
The Torah and Haftarah selections for the first day are the clearest examples of theophany. The reading of the 19th and 20th chapters of Exodus (Sh’mot), from Parshat Yitro, describe the spiritual culmination of what began seven weeks earlier in the Exodus itself. You see, the point of Pesach was not merely the redemption from bondage in and of itself. The point of the redemption from bondage was to receive the revelation at Sinai. The people had experienced God’s power in the redemption; now they would experience God’s presence in their midst and the meaning of God’s presence in their lives as they stood at the foot of Sinai. The same God whose power redeemed them from bondage would now reveal His purpose in having done so: to give them a Teaching to live by and pass on to future generations. The ultimate goal was for Israel to become “a light unto the nations.” That means living an exemplary life worthy of emulation by others. That is the gift of Torah: teaching a way of life – one that brings blessing to our own lives and to the lives of others.
In 1970, George Harrison, of Beatles fame, decided to release a single early from his soon-to-be-released album “All Things Must Pass.” The single, “My Sweet Lord,” was a big hit, reflecting as it did some of the cultural trappings of the time, including an admixture of musical innovation, spiritual yearning, drug experimentation, and religious quest. For some, that religious quest led them to explore the great religious traditions of the East: Hinduism and Buddhism. Some were drawn to Sufism. And there were those drawn to more mystical strains within their own religion. Hence, many Jews began to explore chasidism and Kabbalah. Reflecting the general cultural zeitgeist of turning inward and focusing on personal spiritual experience, they still wanted to stay within Jewish boundaries.
Harrison’s lyrics included the phrases “really want to see you, really want to be with you, really want to know you.” As these words were sung, a background chorus was heard singing the Hebrew word “Hallelujah,” a word recited by both Jews and Christians in prayer. But then, as the song continues, there is a shift from “Hallelujah” to “Hare Krishna,” signifying that the quest for God has led the singer from the West and Christianity on a journey to the East and Hinduism.
I thought about Harrison’s song when I read the Haftarah from Ezekiel for the first day of Shavuot (Ezekiel I and III: 12). It describes the prophet’s ecstatic experience of the presence of God in an extraordinary theophany. It could easily be read as a literary analogue of a psychedelic poster from the ’70’s – the era of Harrison’s song.
What did Ezekiel see? In a prophetic vision he saw an image of the Merkavah: a divine throne on swiveling wheels, moving chariot-like, illumined by some mysterious effect, with what appeared to be the outline of a human-like form, though not a human. There were bright colors and a rush of ethereal, perhaps angelic, voices.
Ezekiel’s vision gave rise to an early school of Jewish mysticism that pondered the mysteries of the Merkavah. Yet, our sages cautioned us to be careful when doing so: to be sufficiently mature chronologically so as to be thoroughly grounded in mainstream Torah teachings and thereby, presumably, both intellectually and spiritually mature. In fact, it was considered dangerous for people who were young, inexperienced, and insufficiently grounded in Torah to study these esoteric doctrines. They might take a wrong turn; they might lose their way.
Our sages cautioned us not to take Ezekiel’s ecstatic imagery literally. Rather, we needed to probe its symbolic imagery within the boundaries of normative Jewish theological thinking. But we read it on Shavuot because it records the extraordinary instance of one prophet who experienced a theophany, paralleling the collective experience of our ancestors who stood at Sinai. Both reflect God’s manifesting God’s Self, demonstrating God’s power and purpose in ways readily perceived by the senses and easily understood by the mind.
The vast majority of us living today are not going to experience either the private theophany witnessed by Ezekiel or the public one witnessed by those who stood at Sinai. I would have said that none of us will have such experiences, but I don’t want to preclude the possibility. Now, I am aware that people who claim to have had such experiences sometimes are dismissed as crackpots or diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness. Hence, normal people are reluctant to talk about religious experiences they have had lest they be so labeled, and, therefore, misunderstood. But we should know that our ancestors believed in the possibility of such things really happening.
The late George Harrison’s words still speak for many: “I really want to see you, really want to be with you, really want to know you.” We Jews, however, are taught that no one can see God, for God is not corporeal; God has no shape or form. Nor can we really know God. The Torah teaches us that, after Moses died, there was never another who knew God as he did, “person to Person” (my interpretive translation of panim el panim). But each of us can find ways to be with God, to draw closer to God and feel God’s presence.
How do we do that? There are three ways: Torah (study of Torah), avodah (worship), and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). This is the famous “tripod” on which the world rests, according to Simon the Just (Pirkei Avot I: 2).
Study Torah and there will be moments when your enlightenment will seem to be more than just intellectual. Pray and there will be moments when you will feel awakened spiritually. Do a random act of kindness, of chesed, and see how compassion has been awakened within you, heart and soul, perhaps motivating you to another such act. As our sages taught, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah begets another in its train.
The Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot (which coincides with Shabbat this year) is a clear example of this truth: While we cannot fully know God, we can learn what God wants of us. Micah encapsulated it in the phrase “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The portion we read from Deuteronomy (XIV: 22 ““ XVI: 17) makes it more concrete.
This selection from Parshat Re-eh is all the more poignant in this year of deepened economic recession, for it speaks of the obligation to care for those who are needy, those who are vulnerable or at risk. It speaks of lending to a needy person without charging interest, the conditions governing forgiveness of debts, and the obligation to provide for the needs of widows and orphans. Translate the universal message of these passages from Torah into contemporary terms and you have a message that is very relevant for our own times.
How wonderful, then, that we read these lines on the second day of Shavuot, which is also on Shabbat this year. After contemplating the meaning of the theophany our ancestors experienced in the revelation of Torah at Sinai described in our reading for the first day, we can think about concrete ways to apply the Torah’s teachings in our own time as we ponder the general principles found in our reading for the second day. And, if we have been inspired, we can begin to bring blessings to the lives of others when we go back into the world from our holiday respite by doing what God wants of us. In that way, we also will have brought blessing to ourselves and all Israel. And, in this way, we will have drawn closer to God. In this way, we will have been with God. We may even have had a sense of God’s presence in our lives.
Think for a moment about Naomi. She is so central to the Megillah we read on Shavuot. What was it that drew Ruth to embrace our people and our people’s faith? I think it was that her mother-in-law, Naomi, lived her faith and set an example worthy of emulation. Because Naomi sought to draw near to God she drew Ruth near, too. For Ruth, it was not a theophany that brought her to Israel’s God. Rather, it was Naomi’s example.
Naomi was renewed by Ruth’s embrace of her people and faith. So may we find our faith renewed by the blessings we bring to the lives of others through acts of chesed, of lovingkindness. And in this way may we find ourselves blessed by God’s presence in our own lives.