William Hamilton

How is God?

She started it when she hit me back,” a 4 year-old boy complained to his parents about his older sister. He may have been too upset to realize that his complaint contained a confession: it was he who started it. 

There’s a lot of aggression out there. At times, punching back seems like a reflex that’s gaining ground. It’s particularly unattractive when those doing it appear to be religiously faithful. 

When I was a Seminary student, they used to say When is God? is a more interesting question than Where is God? That is, most people have moments in their lives that feel more inviting for big questions, when struggles and crossroads demand uncommon attention. When you’re ready. These junctures have more to do with timing than location. 

But lately, I am beginning to wonder if a better question is How is God? That is, how does religion affect a person’s life? Does it make them more compliant, passive, and dependent? Does it make them more zealous and aggressive? Or might it make them more humble, more invested in instilling dignity in the feelings and futures of others?

This week’s portion of Torah features an incident when two individuals seem to overreach. They are taking prophecy too far. When Joshua hears of it, he asks Moses whether he should immediately terminate them (Num. 11:26-29). Why such an alarming reaction? Because Joshua has just witnessed Moses at rock bottom. In the grip of wretched misery due to the People’s complaining, Moses had recently pleaded with God to relieve his suffering by taking his life. Yet Moses’s spirit had been revived. God had just helped him glimpse the radiant scope of his influence (Num. 11:11-25). A new sensation is breezing through him. He was now in a position to stretch and expand it. He responds, “Would that all of God’s people be prophets?”

Earlier this week, some of us were talking about the difference between an entertaining experience and a prophetic one. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says the former leaves behind a memory of enjoyment, while a prophetic experience leaves behind the memory of a commitment. Commitments ought to emit joy.

May your spirit of commitment sting less and sooth more, making your lived-answer to the question How is God? into a life-force that feels less like a bite and more like a balm. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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