March 2024

Prayers and Passages: Sensing God’s Presence


By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss

Last week I had what my husband, Dan, refers to as a “There Must Be a God” moment. I was meeting someone for at a coffee shop and sat at the last available outdoor table. I preferred to sit outside in the fresh air and wanted to alert my companion in case he had already arrived and was waiting inside, only to realize that I had forgotten my phone at home. I thought, “If only someone I knew could hold this table for me while I look inside.” As if by magic, within less than a minute, two of my congregants miraculously appeared right in front of me and were able to save my table.

You have probably experienced something similar in your own lives. You may call these moments coincidences or flukes. I like to think of them as reminders that God is present in the world even if we cannot actually see the Divine in physical form (nor should we, according to our tradition). In Judaism, there is no iconography or concrete symbols for us to worship. Ours is a religion based completely on faith.

In the Torah, God spoke directly (or through dreams) to our ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, etc. In later books of the Hebrew Bible, God spoke to the prophets: Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. As the Israelites trekked through the desert for 40 years, they depended on the tangible signs of God’s presence: a pillar of smoke that guided them by day and the fire that provided light at night. Yet even with these constant signs, the Israelites still repeatedly felt frightened and insecure about God’s protection during their wanderings.

For example, in the Torah portion Ki Tisa, we learn that the Israelites panicked when Moses (who had told them he would be gone for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the Torah from God) failed to return from the top of Mt. Sinai on the appointed day. Unwilling to wait until the end of the 40th day, they rebelled, insisting that Aaron (Moses’ brother) provide them with something else to worship, resulting in the golden calf.

Why did the Israelites abandon God despite the myriad of recent miracles, such as the plagues on the Egyptians, their fantastic escape from Egypt, or the miraculous parting of the Red Sea? How quickly all these miracles were forgotten in their rush to find a substitute god-symbol in an inanimate golden calf! Was their memory that short? Is ours?

As human beings, we often seek some sort of reassurance of God’s presence in our lives. We do not worship an object, so there is nothing tangible to which we pray. Our faith in God and belief that God watches over us is internal, emanating from a place deep within our soul. When something good happens to us, we may praise and thank God. When something bad happens, we may feel that God has abandoned us.

In looking for explanations of why certain things happen, we may seek concrete manifestations of God’s presence. We need only look at the beauty of nature, see the smile on an infant’s face, or feel the comfort provided by a beloved pet on our lap to appreciate the miraculous in our daily lives. These moments may not provide the exact answers we seek in trying to understand the profound challenges we face at certain points in our lives. But somehow these awe-inspiring experiences offer us a glimpse of God in action, a reminder of God’s presence.


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