There is an interesting statistic I once heard. Lottery winners were asked five years after the event if they were happier now than before they became millionaires. Ninety-four percent said that they were less happy. Sometimes human nature is the opposite of what we would expect.
I think the same is true of those I have heard say “If only G-d would speak to me or show me a sign, I would become religious.” The truth is that, on the whole, prophecy doesn’t make people more religious. We don’t have prophecy today and for good reason. Someone whose religion is built solely on a prophetic experience will find that since the experience doesn’t last, neither does the commitment. Eliyahu on Mount Carmelproved to an enormous crowd that there is only one G-d, the G-d of Israel. It was an incredible experience, everyone was convinced, but nothing changed. In last week’s parsha too, forty days after the prophetical experience of the Ten Commandments, Jews worship an idol. In the long term, prophecy and winning the lottery have this in common; they probably won’t have the desired result.
Having G-d speak to you, like winning the lottery, can be a traumatic experience. The Midrash relates that when the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments straight from G-d, their souls left their bodies and they needed to be brought back to life. Another version has it that we were literally blown away, several miles away. The message of the Midrash is that the encounter with raw, unadulterated Divine truth is the most terrifying, mind-blowing experience imaginable.
So how did prophecy work? How did prophets like Moses and Isaiah come out of the prophetic experience closer to G-d, more religious, more committed, without trauma? The answer of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah is clear: to become a prophet, you have to prepare yourself. You have to transform yourself into a wise, moral and holy individual. Only such an individual can experience prophecy without being blown away or losing his religion. Such an individual, according to Maimonides, is to a man what a man is to an animal. There are four categories of living being: plants, animals, humans and prophets.
In other words, rather than only becoming religious if G-d speaks to you, it seems that G-d only speaks to you if you become a truly complete religious personality.
The same is true of Jews as a community. In this week’s parshah, G-d’s presence finally returns to the Jewish people. According to the Ramban, this is the first time that the Divine Presence has dwelt among the Jewish people since our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For that Divine presence to return, we need to build a Sanctuary for G-d, with every detail exactly as G-d instructed. At the end of our parsha, after fulfilling all the requirements, the Divine presence fills the Sanctuary. In order to have this intimate relationship with G-d, that He dwells among us, we need to change the nature of our community. By the entire people getting involved in the building of the sanctuary for G-d and fulfilling every requirement to the letter, we transform ourselves into a community worthy of the Divine presence.
The same is true of our synagogues. If there is no spiritual feel to our services, if G-d does not seem to be there, we need to transform our community into one that strives to serve G-d through prayer. Only then will G-d dwell among us.
A child was asked “Where is G-d?” He answered, “Wherever you let Him in.” The challenge for us is not to wait for G-d to knock on our doors, not to complain “Where is G-d?” The challenge for us is to strive to transform ourselves, our families and our communities to “let Him in”.
We live today in a world without prophecy, without a home for the Divine presence, a world where secularism and immorality seem to be on the rise. From what I have written, the question, when we contemplate the brokenness of our world, is not “Where is G-d?” The question has to be “Where is man?”