Surprising encounters with the presence of God in the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud
The readings this Sunday focus on idea of the Kingdom of God and what it means to meet the presence of God in our lives. God can speak to us even through someone like a prostitute, even if we are great sinners. What matters is our response to His call, because his Kingdom is already here,” Shlomo Libertovski, Torah lecturer at Beth Shemesh,in a commentary for the Heschel Center KUL for Sunday January 21, speaks about the examples of God’s unexpected callings in the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud.
The readings this Sunday focus on idea of the Kingdom of God and what it means to meet the presence of God in our lives. There are many examples of that in the Bible.
The first important example is that of Moses. As we know from the book of Exodus, he fled the Pharoah after having killed an Egyptian soldier oppressing a Hebrew slave. During his exile, Moses was looking after a flock of sheep when God `revealed himself in a burning bush saying: “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt (Ex 3, 15-17). God also commanded Moses to meet and speak to the Pharoah and ask him to let Hebrews go out of Egypt. Moses who had a stuttering problem initially was reluctant to accept the mission but ended up listening to God’s voice and after a brief meeting with his father-in-law in Midian, he left everything in order to follow God’s calling.
God can also call us suddenly by passing through another person. We see this in the example of Elishah. “Elijah went and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.” “Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?” So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant. (1 Kings 19, 19 – 21).”
However, because God is God, he does not limit himself by speaking to us only in an extraordinary event like that of a burning bush revelation or by using a famous prophet like Elijah. He can speak to us even through someone like a prostitute. There is a famous story in the Babylonian Talmud about Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordia (tractate Avodah Zarah 17, 1). “It was taught: It was said of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her. Once, on hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of denarii for her hire, he took a purse of denarii and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance. He thereupon went, sat between two hills and mountains and exclaimed: O, you hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me! They replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves. So he exclaimed: Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves. He then exclaimed: Sun and moon, plead ye for mercy for me! But they also replied: How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves (…). Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a heaveanly voice was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’ Rabbi [on hearing of it] wept and said: One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour! Rabbi also said: Repentants are not alone accepted, they are even called ‘Rabbi’!”
A true encounter with God can happen in all life circumstances and on all social levels. God can speak to us even through a prostitute, even if we are unimportant or great sinners. What matters is that we answer his call and change our lives because his Kingdom is already here.