Passing Before God

Deepening our relationship with God reminds us of our smallness, our greatness, and the chance to be better.

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Reprinted with permission from The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, published by Aviv Press.

"On Rosh Hashanah all who enter the world pass before God like sheep in a flock." (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:2)

What it means to pass before God is a mystery. Even Moses in his greatest moment, was told that he could not see God's face and live: He was placed in a cleft of the rock while God's glory passed by. So how can we possibly "pass before God"? Unsure of what this really means, we can only rely on our tradition, and the intimations of our own spiritual sensitivity.

Of course, one could take a negative view and ask why it matters so very much. After all, presumably the omniscient God, if there is a God, knows us, whether we are aware of it and whether we care about it or not. But unless we wish to live our lives blindly it is not a real option to be dismis­sive about our side of the relationship with God. It would be as if we didn't mind when people said to us, as happens from time to time. "I know you; don't you remember me?" I always feel mortified when I realize that I ought to have known the person concerned. Just as it shames me when a human encounter fails, so I would be pained to feel that I had gone through my life with God saying to me, as it were, "I know you, but you don't recognize or care about me!"

Furthermore, in having some sense of knowing and being known by the spirit, however vague and however fleet­ing, may lie one of life's greatest opportunities both for gaining self-knowledge and for discovering something of the vitality that is the expression of God's presence in the world.

Moments of Prayer

There are moments in life which disclose a deeper sense of being. They may occur in all sorts of circumstances but they are in essence moments of prayer. To sit beside a stream while the mind is emptied by the rush and plunge of water over the ledge of rocks; to listen at night to the sound of the wind in the trees; to become conscious of one particular tree, its sap, its wakefulness; to ponder the words of a poem and sense the company of all the people who have mused over the same image; to sit with the sick and learn from their speech and their silence what lies at the doors of mor­tality--in all these ways God enters our consciousness. These experiences calm the preoccupied mind, wake the dormant soul, and open us to the sheer power and depth of life.

At such moments there may come upon us a simultaneous realization of both our smallness and our greatness. Our smallness lies in the awareness that life and its beauty remain while we will pass away. We are a fragment of consciousness, set in a form of flesh and bound by the limitations of time, and all we know is virtually nothing.

Our greatness lies in the appre­ciation that we are nevertheless not entirely ignorant, that we are given the opportunity to be a conscious and, albeit to a very limited degree, compre­hending part of the infinite life. The challenge of our existence is to be inspired by that knowledge and to use it as the source for creativity in all our relationships, with people and nature, with words and music, wood and clay. Touched, each in our own way, by the eternal presence, we strive to "sing God a new song."

Knowing Us From Within

But there is another aspect to the encounter with God. Judaism speaks not just of God as the maker who creates and inspires, but also as the judge who searches and knows, who "examines the kidneys and the heart." We are taught that God is not only outside us but that God also knows us from with­in. God, too, "holds... the mirror up to nature," and, compelled to perceive the image, I cannot but see myself as I am. And, careless, mistaken, or short tempered, I am often far from the person I like to think of myself as being.

I have learned something about this from my children. Frank and sponta­neous, they haven't yet acquired the art of knowing what not to say. "Why are you speaking to us in that voice, daddy? That isn't your nice voicenor is it the loud voice that you use in shul for sermonsand I don't like it!"

Our children have to suffer us in ways that even God may not know much about. They're certainly more direct in saying what they think of us. But God's knowing can be real enough too, conveyed through the con­science in moments of recognition and feelings of shame and regret. I can­not meet God without also encountering myself. Some of us were taught to be afraid at the thought that God should know us. Yet we should be willing to be known, in spite of the anxiety and fear of guilt that this may bring. Who wants to go through life with the same faults, learning nothing, caught up in the same pattern of mistakes and missed opportunities? Who wants to proceed through life unknown and unproved? Isn't it better to learn and change, to use life as fully as possible for goodness and growth?

Therefore we also have to welcome moments of shame, though with the hope that they will come in small doses, in private and without humilia­tion, that, like the salt that stings but heals, they will be for our cure and purification. For just as a sense of unworthiness often accompanies deep feelings of love, so a feeling of sorrow for what we have done wrong may be part of our closeness to God.

Still, such feelings should not be exaggerated; they are part, but only part, of the relationship. God's chastening presence is only an expression of God's love. Thus in our moments of deepest understanding we realize that the awareness of our faults is for our growth, and that remorse arises within us to cleanse us and prepare us for living a deeper life. We should not therefore be afraid.

(c) 2004. Reprinted with permission from The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, published by Aviv Press.

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Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.