Ever since I can remember, I have been in a relationship with God. Despite growing up in a family of agnostics, I always believed in, and even felt, the presence of God in my world. My idea of God as a child was that of a Biblical God – all-knowing, omnipotent, fatherlike and ubiquitous. My God was everywhere, like a full-time friend who protected and accompanied me throughout the day.
When I was a sophomore at Oberlin College, I had a vivid dream about God: I was sitting in a vacant classroom, waiting for class to begin. I asked aloud, to an empty room, “What is God?” The answer came over a loudspeaker, in a voice that was neither male nor female, neither young nor old, in a language I didn’t know but totally understood.
“God is that force inside you that strives to be good in a world that is not always good.”
I have embraced this idea of God since my college days, and it has served me well as a compass when I have felt lost, afraid or unsure. It has helped guide me in my choices and soothe me in times of frustration or pain.
There is a LOT of God talk in Judaism. Jewish liturgy and texts are filled with references to God. We are commanded to bless God 100 times a day – when we wake up, before we eat, when we drink wine and when we experience something for the first time.
Jewish holidays often mention God, but the Mega-God holiday is Passover, which, more than any other holiday, focuses our attention on the actions of a God who intervenes directly in history to save us.
Year after year we are commanded to tell the story of how God took the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” God delivered the 10 plagues upon Egypt and parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through in safety. God brought the waters crashing down upon the Egyptian soldiers who were following in pursuit.
Why did God do all of this? The answer came seven weeks after the Exodus at the base of Mount Sinai, where the Hebrew people gathered for the first time to experience the most profound moment in Jewish history, the Revelation of the Torah. It was here that more than 600,000 (some put it at 2 million) Hebrew ex-slaves became unified as a spiritual nation, when they entered into the covenant with God. They were given freedom for a distinct and special purpose – to love God, to follow the laws of the Torah and to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Our tradition teaches us that everyone was present on that day – from the leaders and the elders to the wood choppers and the water carriers, from the oldest sages to the newborns. We are also taught that each person saw, heard and understood the word of God uniquely, according to his or her own knowledge, experience, intellect and ability.
What I take from our teachings is this: At the very moment when we first came together as the Jewish people, we also became aware that God would and could mean something different and unique to each of us. What we shared as a people at the foot of Mount Sinai was the undeniable personal yearning to know God.
There is a line in the Haggadah that states: “in every generation we should regard ourselves as though we personally left Egypt.” One way that we can personally experience this commandment is to see it as an invitation to think about the “God conversation” in our lives.
Do we feel a sense of God in our lives? Do we believe in the God of our youth, or have we abandoned those ideas as remnants of simpler times and thoughts? Do we yearn to hold on to something greater than ourselves, a higher power, a sense of awe and wonder, that inner voice that directs and guides us to do good?
Are we unsure if we believe in God at all? And if we don’t believe in God, what does the God that we don’t believe in look like or mean to us?
I’ll be honest. I miss the clarity I once felt about “my” God and the comfort I experienced from my unwavering faith. Over the years my clarity has been replaced with a yearning to understand the meaning of the totality of life – the joys and blessings as well as the challenges, struggles and losses that I have faced. Where does God fit in to all of this and how? I can’t answer that for sure, but I know that I will never stop trying.
Passover is a wonderful opportunity to look at where we are as we wander through our own desert of ideas about what God may or may not mean to us. For a lively conversation you might even consider posing this as the Fifth Question at your seder: “How is my God different from your God?”