Strangers "with" God

May 24th: Behar
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Rabbi Chananya ben Teradion says: “When two people sit and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.” (Avot 3.3) Thus do we have an ancient description of the ever-blooming Tree of Life that is our Torah. In our textually based religion, there is always something new coming from the Divine through our sacred study.

A case in point comes in Leviticus 25.23. In discussing the Jubilee Year, when all property ownership reverts back to the ancestral families, God instructs, “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”

The basic meaning, of course, is that human land ownership is a temporary construct—one allowed by God for human purposes, but ultimately more a lease or a loan from the Almighty. God created the world and owns it; whatever we have is but lent to us—we stewards of God’s property.

A deeper meaning is taught this week by Rabbi Ben Spratt of New York City in the weekly D’var Torah on—the website of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Spratt quotes Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim (1748-1800), the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who focuses on the last word of the verse, imadi. It is usually translated as resident with me, indicating that God is the landlord, and we are the tenants. However Reb Moshe reads imadi as along with me—“you are but strangers along with Me,” suggesting that God is a resident stranger just like us. Reb Moshe writes: “…for whoever is a stranger has no people with whom to cleave and to draw near and to tell of his experiences. And for anyone whose heart has no friend…when he sees a fellow stranger (and feels resonant as a fellow outsider) then he may recount with this person his experiences.” (Degel Machaneh Efraim)  Reb Moshe notes the human tendency to stay among our own kind, hesitating to stress ourselves with strangers and their strangeness. But, if we realize that we are strangers, too, then perhaps we can feel camaraderie with them and seek them out. For Rabbi Spratt, this is the way that we can partner with God—by joining God in reaching out for strangers and bringing them into relationship. It is a powerful ethical teaching, enhanced by the mystical sensibility that we and God are working together.

The idea that God is a stranger reminds me of a teaching of Rabbi Marcia Prager, a neo-Hassidic thinker from Philadelphia. In her book, The Path of Blessing, Reb Marcia discusses the meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh, usually translated as holy. Though we use the word holy fairly often, the exact meaning is difficult to specify. The earliest use of the root K D SH is in regard to marriages—which are called kedushin: one partner sets the other partner apart from all other men or women in the world, solidifying this special relationship. The sense of the word seems to involve separation and difference—separating something that is special. The times and items and relationships we identify as kadosh / holy are special and revered—and thus quite different from others.

So, if God is described or defined as holy—as in Leviticus 19.2, “I the Lord your God am holy,” then this makes God utterly different and separate. Utterly different. Utterly separate. Reb Marcia then proceeds to identify a deep difference. Everything in creation is either present or not present in one place. If I am here, I am not there. If you are there, you are not here. God, however, is utterly different from everything else inasmuch as God is both present in every place and simultaneously not present in every place. In other words, while God fills the Universe, there are places where it is as though God is not present. The salient factor is Divine Influence.  When God’s Influence is present, it is as though God is present: people behave in godly ways, doing God’s work in the world. If, however, people behave in ways that are ungodly, it is as though God is absent—history being filled with times and places where God did not seem to be known at all. Tying this back to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim’s insight, we could say that God is a stranger, potentially present at every place and in every moment, hoping that someone will channel the Divine and manifest God in the world.

Thus can we conclude with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—whom Rabbi Spratt quotes in his D’var Torah: “The destiny of man is to be a partner of God, and a mitzvah is an act in which man is present, an act of participation; while sin is an act in which God is alone; an act of alienation.” (Between God and Man, page 80).

Though so much of our religious heritage speaks of God’s immense power, there is something remarkably inspirational in the Kabbalah’s suggestion that God depends on us. We have the power to say Yes or No, to bring God into the world or to ignore the possibilities of godliness. It is an awesome choice, a wonderful opportunity.