God’s Presence and Human Agency—by Ayala Emmett

On a brutally snowy day in February, a day when roads and parking lots are dangerously slippery, some forty women come to a book signing for a local writer. They come to honor the author and hear her read selection from her memoire.  Some of the passages are heartbreakingly moving and she chooses to close her reading with a narrative of God’s presence: “I sat near the lakeshore to pray the Shabbat service… ‘Such a serene spot,’ I said aloud to my congregation of rocks, water, trees and a passing gull…I glanced down at my prayer book and resumed my private service…I heard Julian stage-whisper, ‘B.J.’ I wondered why he was calling me when he could see what I was doing. I uttered the final words, then looked up to see him in a canoe bracketed by two loons. We love the gorgeous black and white water birds with their haunting cry…And he managed to usher two to my chapel. As if in answer to my unspoken prayer. As if to emphasize God’s wondrous presence.”

The author, B.J. Yudelson offers an account of human mindfulness that engages God’s presence as she frames her description in a familiar biblical narrative. In Torah as well as in this week’s Parsha (Exodus 21-24) human agency, an active consciousness is dynamically engaged with God’s presence. To place this relationship in its broader tradition it would be helpful to recall that the book of Genesis offers a powerful agentive awareness of God’s presence in the following account, “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” Once aware, Jacob acts to remember/memorialize God’s presence in tangible materiality; he takes a large stone, a pillar and pours oil over it and calls the place Bet El, God’s House (Genesis 28:16). The book of Exodus offers another dynamic process when it describes Moses’ active awareness as he sees the burning bush, which is aflame yet is not consumed and he is ready for God’s presence as he responds, “here I am.”

In this week’s Torah reading Parshat Mishpatim, The Laws (Exodus 21-24) the Israelites are still encamped at the Mountain of God. In that place a historic covenantal relationship is established between God and the Israelites in which human agency is critical. The Israelites are given the first set of God’s laws and rules through Moses. Yet they understand their part in the covenantal relation which means that their human agency must display an active awareness of God presence: “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commandments of God and the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying ‘All the things that God has commanded we will do.” (24:3).

The Israelites answer in one voice to underscore that their dynamic awareness of God’s presence is nothing less than acknowledging that the rules they would follow are communal and individual. Over the centuries some of the rules have emerged as enduring, foundational and necessary to engage God’s presence: “You shall not oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan” (22:20). These commandments require a lively ongoing active awareness of justice in order to bring forth God’s presence that cannot be taken for granted.

The narrative in Exodus makes clear that God’s presence can hide, “The Presence of God dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the Cloud hid it for six days.” (24:16). God’s presence can hide for any amount of time waiting for humans to actually follow, “you shall not oppress a stranger.”  Torah makes us aware that If we seek God’s presence we need to acknowledge/remember that it calls for active awareness, which means never to participate knowingly in any oppression and never to be bystanders when we see oppression.

When the Israelites heard God’s legal/ethical document and responded “we will do” with one voice, “the Presence of God appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain” (24:17).