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God's Present More Than You Know
Not every culture recommends joy as wholeheartedly as Americans do. To hear us tell it, we're entitled to joy unbridled. We even have a detergent called "Joy" -- cleaning up should be joyful!
Well, why not? Isn't it natural to seek out happiness?
The quest goes back at least to Ecclesiastes (Kohelet, in Hebrew), who sought to maximize life by denying himself nothing, only to find that once he had it all, it deteriorated into "utter futility" (hevel havalim).
The rabbis assigned Kohelet for Sukkot because the holiday was already associated with enjoyment. The Mishnah describes a Temple ceremony, by commenting, "Anyone who hasn't experienced it, doesn't know what joy is!"
What did the Temple know that Kohelet didn't? The Yerushalmi, or Jerusalem Talmud, explains that, at the Temple festivities, the celebrants felt God's presence.
What can that mean for us? People who nowadays testify to the presence of God are considered loony.
Could Temple pilgrims really have known the consummate joy of experiencing God? If so, where is God now? Put your hand up if you expected God to show up at synagogue services this Sukkot. Put your other hand up if you think God shows up anywhere.
Actually, I think God does show up. Consider this story:
Some years back, professors at the University of Notre Dame dispatched priests to ask Catholics if they experienced the presence of God. Some 95 percent answered affirmatively. I then sent students to their weekly congregations to try the experiment there; to no one's surprise, only 3 percent of their congregants said "Yes."
What should we conclude? That God visits Catholics, but not Jews? That's dubious.
So I repeated the experiment, this time altering the question to "How many people have experienced spiritual moments?" The number now rose to more than 20 percent.
But the clincher came with a third try. If asked about intensely profound moments, 95 percent of Jews concurred. And when asked to stipulate what the profound occasions were, Jews mentioned the same experiences that Catholics identified as God's presence. Jews just named them differently.
And not all these moments were joyous. Alongside the obvious candidates, like weddings, childbirths and magical sunsets, they also heard about moments of crisis, even of death -- like holding hands with a dying parent just before the end.
Even if (like the Temple ceremony) all occasions of absolute joy involve the presence of God, not all occasions of the presence of God are joyful. The rabbis are adamant about finding God in exile. God, they say, sits with patients in the hospital.
"But why call that God?," people ask. And why not? The prophet Elijah found God in "a still small voice," not in lightning and thunder. He could have mistaken it for a desert breeze, and gone back to reading a book. Or, suspecting God after all, he might have visited the biblical equivalent of a therapist to rid himself of the delusion. However, he didn't. He named it "God," and, as they say, the rest is history.
Not everything we encounter need be divine. But some things are. God is present in those profound breakthrough experiences where we sense that we stand at the limits of mortality: births, deaths, insights of genius, connecting with another human being, and experiencing ourselves at one with history or with nature.
The Temple is gone, but life is equally profound, equally ecstatic, equally mysterious, and equally painful. Kohelet had it right: "For everything there is a season." The only way to avoid "utter futility" is to entertain the possibility that God can show up at any of them.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor at HUC-JIR in New York.