From the Rabbi - January 2014 Print
Dear Friends:

I had a very interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a dear friend who is an Episcopalian priest.  We were talking theology, and I asked him what value Jesus added that could not be had from simply relating directly to God.  He thought for a long while and then suggested that the most important plus that Jesus offered was incarnation, the ability to perceive the presence of God in a form that was accessible to sensory perception.  God, he said, is abstract; Jesus makes that idea concrete and immediate.

In a sense, he was right about God being abstract.  We believe that God has no form that can be seen or sensed.  But I offered my friend another perspective on the question of whether a human being can perceive or apprehend God or not.  

In the third century of the common era, there was a rabbi named Joshua ben Levi who made a trip to Rome.  There, he was astounded by the monumental buildings and glorious edifices.  He was especially struck by the many statues and by the care that the Romans lavished on them.  If the weather was inclement, cold or rainy, a team of public servants would dash out into the public areas and cover each statue with a large, exquisite cloth.  So, too, if the summer heat rose above a certain level, the workers would protect the statues with the same cloths.

Just as he was admiring the statues, Rabbi Joshua felt a tug at his sleeve.  Next to him stood a beggar, dressed in rags, hand outstretched for some alms.  As the rabbi looked first at the beggar and then at the statues, he thought to himself:  “Here are statues of stone covered with expensive clothes.  Here is a man, created in the image of God, clad in rags.  A civilization that pays more attention to statues than to men shall surely perish.”  And he was correct.  The decline and ultimate fall of Rome had already begun.

What I said to my friend is that, if one wants to see God, one need look no further than people who embody the values of God in their daily lives.  Someone who helps alleviate the suffering of other human beings makes God manifest among us.  Someone who beautifies the world and preserves the natural universe from pollution makes God evident to everyone else.  People who love and care and treasure other people – they make God real to those around them.  

There’s a doggerel bit of early childhood verse that bears on this question.  It goes this way: “Who can see the wind?  Neither you nor I.  But when the trees bow down their heads the wind is passing by.”  If you watch other people (and maybe even yourself) doing godly acts, you will be able easily and clearly to see God.

        Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi