God’s Presence in the Arms of Loved Ones
On the occasion of this joyful Shabbat, on which we celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, (and this year, Tu Bishevat), I find myself more contemplative than joyful. Treasured friends of my mine have just suffered a devastating loss, and their sadness colors my vision of the parashah and of our world. That is perhaps why I was struck by the following verses, early in our parashah:
“They [the Israelites] set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:20—22 )
A people enslaved and persecuted by Pharaoh, the Israelites now find themselves guided and protected by the mysterious and powerful Presence of God. They are never left alone, never left unprotected. Through the “mysterious, intangible elements of fire and cloud” they experience the “dynamic presence of God” (Etz Hayim Humash, p. 400). What a powerful feeling this must have been! How I have longed, in my moments of deep sorrow, to feel this tangible presence of God, to feel God guiding me along the right path. How I yearn to be able to give to my grieving friends this powerful feeling of God’s presence, of God’s caring, of God’s light.
There are certainly moments when I have felt God’s presence in my life, moments I am sure many of us have experienced. Most of those moments have been positive ones — a beautiful moment of congregational prayer, standing in awe in the midst of the Alps, meeting my husband at the airport with our newly adopted son in my arms… But it has been harder to feel God’s presence in moments of deep pain. In those moments, I have needed help — as I believe most of us do. The Talmud tells us that even though Rabbi Yohanan was a great healer, when he, himself lay ill, he was not able to heal himself:
“Rabbi Yohanan once fell ill. Rabbi Hanina went to visit him. He said to him: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” He said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan raise himself? The rabbis replied: “The prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b)
In life’s moments of deep pain, we need the help and love of others as reminders that God is with us. When we are touched by a loving hand, when we are embraced by the caring arms of people who love us, when we are listened to as we pour out our hearts, then we are reminded that God, too, is with us. The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire are the flesh and blood of human beings whom God created “in His image”, and when — in our moments of deep anguish — they take us under their wing, we are also being touched by the presence of God. May we all be blessed with family and friends to embrace us in our times of deepest need, and may we all then feel touched by God’s presence and God’s light.
Rabbi Melissa Crespy
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi