Finding God
TorahParshat P’kudei

Finding God

Exodus 38:21 – 40:38

Where do we look for God? Where do we find God? How do we convince our children of the existence of an unseen God? These are complex theological questions many of us have asked during our lifetimes, but the answers are not easy.

The Israelites in the desert had a much easier time of finding God, as explained by this week’s parsha, P’kudei. P’kudei is Hebrew for records, referring to the copious records Moses bid the Levites to keep of the Mishkan — the desert sanctuary — and its furnishings. Instructions for setting up the portable desert sanctuary comprise the middle section of the parsha. It is only in the last five verses of P’kudei that our ancestors are told very explicitly where they can find Adonai.

“When Moses had finished the work [on the Tabernacle], the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of G-d filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle the cloud of Adonai rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night; in the view of all the house of Israel through all their journeys.” (Exodus 40:34-38)

How comforting it must have been for the Israelites to have a visible sign that their God was with them, and traveled with them. For other peoples of this time period and before, all gods were gods of a place. These gods did not travel with their people; their worshippers had to come where they were believed to live. For instance, the god of the Nile for the Egyptians, Hapi, could not be worshipped outside of the Nile valley.

However, the God of the Israelites could be worshipped anywhere. This difference would be cemented in the Israelites’ consciousness hundreds of years after the events of Exodus, when the southern Israelite tribes were taken in captivity almost 2,000 miles away to Babylon. Though they “lay down and wept for thee, Zion,” (Psalm 137:1) they were consoled by prophets like Jeremiah that God had not deserted them, and their God was with them always.

Besides God’s constant reassuring, visible presence, it is significant that God continued to appear “in the view of all the Israelites throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:38). In many other religions, including the other two Abrahamic religions, God revealed God’s self only to one person, or a few people. Muslims believe that the Koran, the holy religious text of Islam, was revealed solely to the prophet Mohammed. In Christianity, Jesus was transfigured into the “Son of God” before only two disciples; and his resurrection from the dead was viewed by two women, according to one gospel, or by his 11 disciples in another.

The practitioners of these two world religions must operate on faith of the experiences of a few for their belief system. In contrast, all the Israelites who came out of Egypt were witness to G-d’s presence in their rescue, in the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and during their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.

The Israelites had a visual reminder that God is with them; we have no such obvious sign. Several questions were asked at the beginning of this d’var Torah. In attempting to answer these questions for our time, I find it helpful to ponder the following religious school prayerbook poem:

“God, everywhere we turn we feel Your power and Your holiness. We feel You with us when we hear a newborn baby cry.
We feel You with us when we touch a soft flower.

We feel you with us when we see a rainbow after a storm. We feel You with us when we are loving and loved.

We feel You with us when we do a mitzvah.

We praise You, Eternal God.

Everywhere we turn, You are there.” (Mishkan T’filah for Youth) A little simplistic, perhaps, but definitely on point. In our generation, we are called to be more creative in finding God. We are not the neophyte Israelites of over 3,000 years ago who needed to see God’s presence to believe. After more than 3,000 years of the Jewish religion, God expects more of us. It is up to us to rise to the challenge.

As this is the last parsha in the book of Exodus, we say the following: Chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazeik — be strong, be strong, and we shall be strengthened. PJC

Cantor Michele Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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