In Parashat Va’era, God addresses Moses and says, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai” (Exodus 6:3). Our biblical verse makes the appearance of God seem like a truly straightforward event. In the Torah, God appeared to each of the patriarchs, to Moses, hardened Pharaoh’s heart, split the Sea of Reeds, and gave Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Yet in our own lives, as we confront challenge and difficulty, the appearance of God is arguably less explicit. Like young children crying out for a supportive and loving Parent, we believe that if God would simply “appear” in our own lives, perform miracles like those found in the pages of the biblical narrative, and set things straight, then the world would be a better place.
But according to the Mishnah, compiled around 200 CE, Rabbi Hillel adopted a different perspective. One of his most famous aphorisms was, “In a place where no one is a mensch, strive to be a mensch.” Thus, the responsibility for instilling holiness in other people rests not upon God’s shoulders, but rather, more squarely upon our own. While belief in God can offer strength, support, and guidance, ideas and thoughts are powerless unless they are put into action—unless we promote the words and teachings of a time-honoured tradition that inspires and requires goodness and love. When we witness corruption, poor ethics, and mistreatment of other human beings, it is our responsibility to speak out and make a difference.
The Kotsker Rebbe brought the words of Rabbi Hillel and the concept of our Torah portion a step further. He asked, “Where is God? Wherever you let God in.” Though this week’s Torah reading presents a “top-down” mentality, one in which God appears to the people, we must not forget the power resting within the alternative – a “bottom-up” mentality. Through our action, our dedication, and behaviour rooted in love and goodness, we have the ability and power to help God and godliness appear within our lives. We just have to be willing to let such thoughts penetrate our lives and consciences, and hope that such teaching and comportment may be for the benefit of others beside ourselves.