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The Fire of God’s Holy Loving Presence

Yom Kippur 5776 (2015)

The Fire of God’s Holy Loving Presence

Yom Kippur points us to the hidden reality of the holy fire of God’s presence in the midst of Israel. It is this holy presence which evokes our consciousness of moral failure and our desire for atonment at this season. Our teshuvah is not the condition or prerequisite for obtaining the divine presence, but the result of our recognizing that God is among us now. When Hashem sheds his holy light upon us, then, and only then, do we truly see our spiritual need.

As the Torah shows, the holy fire of God’s presence is dangerous for those who transgress and will not take off their shoes when standing on holy ground. Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, are consumed by the holy fire, as are Korah and his followers. In the wake of the sin of the golden calf, the reality of this danger leads God to say to Moshe, “You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you” (Exodus 33:5). Hashem had earlier expressed his desire to dwell in the midst of Israel (Exodus 25:8), but this serious breach of the covenant has led Hashem to reconsider. Apparently, Israel is not yet ready for the holy fire of God’s presence.

But this supposed change in plan is really only another invitation to Moshe to step forward and show his colors. As we saw on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem extended such an invitation earlier when he said to Moshe “Let me alone” (Exodus 32:10) to destroy Israel for its sin. What God was really saying then to Moshe was, “Israel’s fate is in your hands -- show me what kind of man you are.” Moshe rose to the occasion at that point, and pleaded with Hashem to spare Israel. He likewise rises to the occasion now, and pleads with Hashem to go with Israel, despite its sin. “If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:15-16).

What inspires Moshe to make this second plea? What gives him confidence that the holy fire of God’s presence will not utterly consume this people, who have amply demonstrated their moral and spiritual weakness? Perhaps he has taken courage from his original encounter with Hashem at Horeb, when he was still a shepherd of sheep rather than people. Hashem appeared to him then as a flame in the midst of a bush, which burned but did not consume the lowly vegetation. As our Sages have taught, the bush represents Israel, afflicted and humiliated in its Egyptian bondage. The flame is the fire of God’s holy presence, which dwells in and with Israel, but does not consume it. Hashem speaks to Moshe from the bush and tells him that He has seen the misery of His people, has heard their cry, and known their sufferings (Exodus 3:7-8). He thereby lets Moshe know that while the fire of the divine presence is holy, it is also a fire of love. The one who reveals Himself to Moshe at the burning bush is a God of holy love.

The burning bush was a prophetic sign to Moshe of Israel’s calling and destiny. Israel, in all its lowliness, was to be the site of God’s holy and loving presence. That presence would purify Israel, but would not consume it. Moshe risks all on the basis of this confidence in Hashem’s loving purpose.

This confidence of Moshe is confirmed by the new revelation which Hashem gives him on Horeb. The new revelation is really only a kind of commentary on the original revelation, in which Moshe heard the divine Name spoken from the burning bush. The commentary consists of the double proclamation of that Name, followed by what Jewish tradition has called the Shelosh Esrey Midot -- the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy. Adonay, Adonay, el rachum ve chanun, erech apa’im ve rav chesed ve emet -- “a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7).

Jewish tradition has understood this to be not only a revelation, but also a gift from Hashem to Israel, an instrument to be employed in situations where the fire of God’s holy presence threatens to consume Israel in its infidelity. If in such situation Israel will remind Hashem of these words, they will bring atonement and arouse His loving mercy.

After this new revelation Moshe descends the mountain with the second set of tablets, and according to tradition this descent occurs on Yom Kippur. Thus, the annual ritual of atonement in the Beit Mikdash is a reenactment and renewal of the reconciliation which occurred at Sinai after the sin of the golden calf. It is therefore also a celebration of the holy and loving fire of the divine presence which abides in the midst of Israel -- even, as Leviticus 16:16 states, “in the midst of their impurity.”

This is why we recite today again and again the Shelosh Esrey Midot (the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy). We are imitating Moshe, who understood the meaning of the burning bush. We are imitating Moshe, who understood God’s implicit invitation, and proceeded to plead first for Israel’s life, and then for the continued gift of God’s holy and loving presence. We are imitating Moshe, who received the revelation of the thirteen attributes, and passed them on to us, that we might repeat them to ourselves and before God.

These revelatory events at Horeb all point forward to the great event in Israel’s history when the fire of God’s holy and loving presence would be become perfectly manifest in the life of a particular Jew. As Yochanan tells us, in Yeshua “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us; and we have seen his glory [that is, the glory Moshe caught a glimpse of on Horeb]...full of love and faithfulness [rav chesed ve emet] (John 1:14). As the Messiah and the one-man representative of all Israel, he is the burning bush which in its lowliness reveals the fire of God’s holy and loving presence. In the affliction and humiliation he endured, he summed up all the suffering of Israel through the ages. In his obedient life and death he takes to himself all of Israel’s impurities, like the kohanim who consumed the sin-offerings of the people and thus effected atonement. In his continued plea for Israel’s life and blessing, offered according to the example of Moshe, he assures the continued presence of God among his people, despite the destruction of the Beit Mikdash.

In the life of Yeshua we see how the fire of God’s holy and loving presence evokes teshuvah. He calls tax collectors and sinners to repentance not by preaching to them, but by living among them in their brokenness. He touches them and heals them, and then says, “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.” He goes to eat with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the result of his presence is to evoke a radical response of teshuvah. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). Zacchaeus did not first repent, and then entertain Yeshua; he entertained Yeshua, and was thereby moved to change his ways.

This, I think, is also the point of the life and teaching of Pope Francis, who is now in our land for the first time. He is misunderstood by many as lax and tolerant towards what the Torah identifies as sin. That is not the case. Instead, he is but following the example of his master, bringing to the needy the fire of God’s loving presence. That fire is also holy, and will ultimately purify those who touch it.

Have we beheld this burning bush? Have we encountered the fire of God’s holy and loving presence, burning in the midst of lowly Israel, and flaming in the suffering servant of Hashem? Have we experienced its purifying power? If we want to enter this day with true teshuvah, let us pray that we might all draw near to the burning bush, remove our sandals, and stand with confidence on holy ground. We will then become the burning bush, in whom the God dwells, a source of life and revelation to all around us.

G’mar chatimah tova -- may we all be sealed for a good and blessed life, and may we all have an easy fast.

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