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Sensing God's Presence

Harav Yehuda Amital
Text file

Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital

Adapted by Yitzchak Barth and Translated by Kaeren Fish

"'And God passed over before him, and he called out' – Rabbi Yochanan said: Were it not for the text itself saying this, such a thing could never be said. This teaches us that the Holy One wrapped Himself (in a tallit) like a 'shaliach tzibbur' (prayer leader) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order before Me, and I shall forgive them…

Rav Yehuda said: There is a covenant made concerning the Thirteen Attributes that they do not return empty, as it is written, 'Behold, I make a covenant.'" (Rosh HaShana 17b)

At the center of our prayers and supplications on the days of Selichot, culminating with Yom Kippur, stands the recitation of the "Thirteen Attributes." What is the meaning of the expression, "The Holy One wrapped Himself like a shaliach tzibbur?"

Moshe Rabbeinu asked God: "Show me Your glory" (Shemot 33:18). Rambam explains (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 1:10) that it never entered Moshe's mind to know God's essence; he asked only to know the truth of His existence. The Holy One is unique and beyond our ability to grasp. The world's existence is not necessary, but existence without God is completely impossible. Moshe Rabbeinu asked to apprehend the truth of God's existence in a distinct manner,

"so that the knowledge of God in his heart would be just like knowing someone whose face he had seen, and whose image was engraved in his consciousness, such that that person would be distinguished in his mind from other people. Thus Moshe Rabbeinu asked that the existence of the Holy One would be distinguished in his heart from the existence of all else." (ibid.)

In response to Moshe's request, the Holy One enwrapped Himself, as it were – teaching that mortal man cannot completely grasp His reality: "You shall see My back, but My face you shall not see" (Shemot 33:22). But there was a sense of complete presence; it was clear that behind the tallit covering, there was something great and mighty – and this finds expression in the uttering of the Thirteen Attributes.

We are far from the level of Moshe Rabbeinu. The desire to know the real essence of God's existence does not concern us; we are satisfied with the Rambam's explanation (ibid., laws 1-4) that the existence of God – in contrast with the existence of the world – is uncontingent and unconditional. At the same time, we still feel a strong desire and we pray: "Show us Your ways!" We want to see and understand the Kingship of God, His rule over the world.

There are times when the Divine ways of ruling the world are not clearly seen: the Holy One enwraps and covers Himself, as it were. Sometimes, because of a period of suffering – a week, a year, an era – we cannot see the complete picture.

Sometimes God is altogether wrapped; at other times He "peeks through the lattice," and we see His mercies and His small miracles. This year we saw the Holy One peeking through the cracks: through the war against Iraq, He saved us from one of the greatest existential dangers facing the State of Israel. But what we have seen in the last few weeks – the terrible, murderous terrorist attacks – and also during the last few years: here the paths of God's providence are hidden from us. Nevertheless, specifically now we must declare that we sense God's presence with certainty!

A lecturer in philosophy once told me that today we know that there are more than five senses. There is an additional sense, called the "sense of presence." A person who is in a room senses if someone else is with him. I do not know whether this is scientifically correct, but as far as we are concerned, it is true with regard to God. Even when the Holy One is wrapped, as it were, we sense that there is something behind that outer wrapping; we sense that He is with us.

The gemara quoted above reveals to us God's ways in the covenant of the Thirteen Attributes: "The Holy One wrapped himself like a shaliach tzibbur." The gemara continues with a practical instruction: "Let them perform this order before Me". God revealed the Thirteen Attributes in order that we may learn from them about His ways, that we may learn how to act.

We should learn from this covenant that every one of us must radiate kindness, mercy and other positive attributes, but his inner essence should remain "enwrapped." A person's presence should be felt: he need not nullify or hide himself; he must act and achieve, but he should do so without advertising his own self, his personality. When a person sins, when he feels depressed or despairing, "Let them perform this order before Me" – every person should consider himself a shaliach tzibbur, and radiate a sense of emulating God's attributes. The Midrash teaches:

"'And I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious' – At that time God revealed to Moshe all the treasures stored as reward for the righteous. Moshe asked, 'This treasure – for whom is it meant?' And God answered, 'For those who perform mitzvot.'

'And this treasure – for whom is it meant?'

'For those who raise orphans.'

And so on, for each treasure. Then God showed him a great treasure, and Moshe asked, 'Whose treasure is this?'

God answered him, 'Whoever has his own [treasure, due to his actions] – I give him from his own reward; whoever has not – I give him for free, from this. As it is written, 'And I shall be gracious ("chanoti," connected here as denoting a free gift) to whom I shall be gracious.'" (Shemot Rabba, 45)

Someone who gives God the feeling that there is nothing at all that is rightfully his, and that all that he possesses is thanks to God's mercy; one who recognizes that it is the Holy One Who has blessed him with all of his strengths and talents ("Yours, God, is charity, we have shame; I am embarrassed and ashamed to lift my face to You"); those people who say that they deserve nothing – for them God reserves the greatest reward.

These, then, are the two pieces of advice stemming from these aggadot: to wrap oneself like a shaliach tzibbur, and to feel that we have nothing owing to us, and that we rely on God'S free gifts.


On the first night of Selichot, we say, "At the end of the day of rest we greet You first… to hear THE SONG AND THE PRAYER." This expression is taken from the prayer offered by Shelomo after the Beit Ha-Mikdash was completed. Prayer has an element of exalted song, declaring God's praise. Elsewhere, song ("rina") refers to the most heartfelt prayer:

"Arise, sing in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out your heart like water before God…" (Eikha 2:19)

One of the commentaries explains that "singing" here refers to silent prayer – prayer that does not make itself heard, prayer of the heart. King David prayed:

"A lesson ('maskil') of David, when he was in the cave, a prayer: I cry with my voice to God; I make my supplication with my voice to Him… Hear my song, for I am very low…" (Tehillim 142).

There is a prayer that turns into inner song: when a person understands that he has no hope of salvation and that only God, in His great mercy, can help him, then like King David – after all his crying out – he asks: "Hear my song!"

We use this time of the year to take stock; each person knows what afflicts his soul. We see what is happening to us: for years we prided ourselves on having solutions to every problem, and now – "We do not know what to do." We turn to God and cry,

"Yours, God, is charity… the soul is Yours and the body is Your work; have mercy on Your nation!"

Our soul is thirsty for You; it cannot exist without You. "We are called after Your Name; God, act for the sake of Your Name!" At this point our prayer turns into rina, into silent song. We must learn to pray, and recognize that we have no solutions other than prayer.

May the Holy One hear our prayers, and may we and all of Israel merit to be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

(This sicha was delivered on the first night of Selichot, Elul 5763 [2003].) 

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