One of the things I love about being a rabbi is the opportunity to explore the unanswerable questions of life with congregants. I find that some of the most challenging questions tend to arise when we feel the strongest need to connect with the Divine. We may find ourselves in crisis because of the uncertainty that comes along with these questions and we wonder about the possibility of God’s presence in our lives when we or our loved ones are suffering. As many have done before us and as many will inevitably do in the future, we ask ourselves, “Where is God?”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner z”l responds to this question in a piece he wrote about teaching the idea of God in the classroom. “When someone asks me ‘Where is God?’ I reply that it would be easier to answer him if we could change the question just a little, so that it would now read ‘When is God?’ Asking where is God implies that God is a thing… But asking ‘When is God?’ suggests that God is found in the moment, not in the place. Being in God’s presence is not a function of where you are, but of what you are doing…to identify those moments…when God is present.” (Reconstructionism Magazine, October-November, 1984, pp. 10-11)
An example of this is when God, or rofeh cholim, healer of the sick, as is sometimes described in liturgy, is felt as a presence nearby someone who has been sick…and then gotten better. When I sit with someone in pain and in need of healing, I often think and pray with the mindset that God’s role and place vis a vis the patient is a healing presence, accompanying the person’s healing process as well as the caretakers of that person. I believe that my presence can remind someone they are not alone, but rather, part of a community of caring people. Visiting the sick and feeling the presence of a companion during tough times can help us develop a mindset that God is present when we care for someone in need. This, I believe, can help healing occur. Faith in God, in other words, is seeing God’s actions through our own and seeing ourselves as responsible for God’s healing power to be actualized in our lives.
Having faith is a test of whether our beliefs can withstand the cruelties of life. Early 20th century Canadian comparative religionist, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, offers us a different perspective on faith. He defines faith as an “orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe, a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.” (Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them, p. 9) Smith’s philosophy on faith reminds us to continue to search for meaning in life even as we experience life as sometimes devoid of meaning and filled with pain.
I reflected on this idea while reading through parashat Chukat, which we read in the summer months. We read a harrowing account of the Israelites’ continued complaining in the desert, asking God for the umpteenth time why God made them leave Egypt in order to die in the desert.
In response, God sends snakes to bite the people, killing many. When Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, God responds with a message to make a
snakelike figure out of bronze and mount it on a standard. Anyone who was bitten should look at the snake and be healed. (Numbers 21:4-9) The Mishna, the 3rd century Oral Tradition from the Land of Israel, offers an interpretation of this bizarre story which relates to Smith’s interpretation of faith. According to the Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashana (3:8), the bronze serpent directs the people’s thoughts heavenward as they look up at it, similarly to how in Exodus (17:11) Moses’ raised arms direct the people’s eyes upwards towards heaven, helping them to win the battle against Amalek. Moses’ hands are not magical. Rather, they remind the people to feel the presence of God, which gives them courage and strength to fight.
While I don’t encourage anyone to build bronze serpents and mount them above their fireplaces as an alternative to medicine, I do think that Smith and the Mishna are expressing something profound about our ability to heal by searching for meaning in the midst of pain. Our hands can be valuable tools if we use them to bring goodness and healing into the world. This year we are launching a chesed committee at Shaarei Tikvah. With the help of dedicated members Jean and Mort Hertz, we are coordinating hospital visits and
offering our presence at shiva homes to help comfort the bereaved. In the beginning of June we held a training session to empower others to lift up their hands to help healing occur. Please consider joining our efforts. It is one way that we are making sure that in our sacred community God is in our midst. To learn more, contact Jean at firstname.lastname@example.org, or me at email@example.com.