Feeling The Presence Of God

God's presence at Yaakov's deathbed teaches us that our reactions to the situations in which we find ourselves determine our spiritual perceptions.

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Commenting on this midrash, the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav offers a psychological insight into Rashi's midrash:

"The reason for this is that even a very evil person has thoughts of t'shuvah in this time [i.e., upon a sickbed]" (Source: Itturei Torah).

Teshuvah is commonly translated as "repentance," but it comes from the word meaning "turn," or "return." Teshuvah involves introspection and "soul-accounting," and making amends for whatever wrongs we have caused.

Thus R. Nahman is saying that just being sick, in itself, doesn't bring the Shekhinah, but rather that God is felt to be Present when a human being is asking hard questions about life, looking deeply into his or her own soul and struggling to do the right thing. It's the wrestling with conscience that opens up this level of spirituality, not the illness, which just gives us a chance to do the thinking.

Now, please understand, when a text says that God, or the Shechina, is present, it doesn't mean that God is absent or missing at other times--I believe these texts are talking about what we perceive and feel. Sometimes we feel that God is closer, and sometimes farther away.

What we learn from R. Nachman is that our spiritual perception is not determined by the fact of external circumstances that, but rather how we react to our situation. "Turning" our hearts is a precondition to feeling the presence of the sacred; without openness, inwardness and humility, the Divine Presence might be close indeed, but we'd never notice.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.