Some days are darker than others. Enveloped by the shadows of an empty room, pressed close by the sense of being alone, we are surrounded by darkness. In moments like these we may even feel deserted by God.
Standing at Sinai as we do this month, God’s absence seems difficult to fathom. Isn’t God’s opening volley a commitment to be present? ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.’ If we can have no other gods, should we not presume that this one will be there for us?
Shavuot marks the union of God and the Jewish people. Some might suggest that the Torah which we receive on that day is the ketubah, the marriage contract, which seals the relationship. (Some Sephardi communities actually read a ketubah le-Shavuot, a specific marriage contract affirming the relationship between God and the Jewish people.) The imagery is further reinforced by our reading of Megillat Ruth, a powerful tale of love and friendship. In it Ruth says to her bereaved mother in law, Naomi, “Wherever you shall go, I shall go. Where you dwell, I shall dwell. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die I shall die and there I shall be buried.’ (1:16)
The symbolism is clear. Ruth’s devotion to Naomi, her willingness to put all other allegiances aside, this is the devotion of the Jewish people. Naomi is channeling the divine here — and yet, unlike God, who the Midrash suggests held the mountain over our heads to convince us to commit, Naomi discourages Ruth’s filial devotion. So why does Ruth still choose to sign on?
Before we ever get to Sinai, before Moses leads us to freedom, he asks to see God’s face, to cement his confidence in his role as spokesman. God’s classic and ominous reply? ‘None shall see my face and live.’ Not to disappoint Moses completely, God describes a plan in which after placing him in the cleft of a rock, he will be able to see God’s back as God passes by.
Relative to what Moses has asked, it seems inadequate. Yet the philosopher Emanuel Levinas claims that in the moment in which God passes by, the trace of God’s presence leaves a permanent imprint on Moses’ face, one which he will pass on forever.
That trace. God’s presence eternally visible on each and every face. Sometimes it’s hidden, as if our lives pull a mask over our faces if we don’t live up to God’s standard. But that trace, that sign of our potential, is always present, waiting to be revealed.
I imagine that Ruth sees that in Naomi. That God’s presence shines forth from her and Ruth sees it. And that is all the convincing Ruth needs to set aside the known and the familiar and attach herself to Naomi and the Jewish people.
What choices do we make to let God’s light shine through? What lens do we use when we look at others to be able to see God’s presence in them?
In those dark moments, when we feel utterly alone, it’s extraordinarily difficult to feel God’s presence. And perhaps God had just that in mind in gracing humanity with that trace, so that when we think we are alone, we can find God all over again the faces of those whom we have entrusted with the well being of our souls.
So that in that dark hour, that bleakest of moments, we can quickly find God simply by looking into the face of a friend. And then, before we know it, we’ll realize that we aren’t alone — and we never were.