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Where is God 

02/20/2021 10:26:35 AM


Jesse Davis

It’s reported that as a five-year-old, the Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, came to his father with a question. “Papa,” he asked. “Where is God?” His father repeated the answer that most of us were told as children (and which many of us have repeated, as well) - “Son. God is everywhere.”


The young boy paused thoughtfully and responded. “No, Papa. I don’t think that’s quite right.”


“Where is God, then, do you suppose?”


“I think God is only where you let him in.”


Where is God? It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot lately. God just seems… I don’t know. Missing lately. I don’t know if it’s the relative isolation or the fact that I miss prayer in a community, or if it’s something larger. Maybe it’s the fact that the world just seems increasingly driven by division and that in the eyes of many, life itself seems cheap. Something to be toyed with for the sake of personal ambition. Maybe it’s all of it.


But where is God?  


In Parshat Terumah, Torah offers us an answer.  


Moshe is commanded to take up a collection amongst the people of Israel. They asked to offer thirteen different resources - metals, different colors of dyed wool, flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, spice, oil, and gems - all of the treasures of the ancient Mediterranean. Out of it, God says, ”They shall make Me a Sanctuary.” The Mishkan. Directions then are given, in minute detail, about its construction from the Ark at its heart, to its outermost boundaries. In the midst of the minutiae that seem more like IKEA instructions than Holy Writ, a method to God’s madness seems to emerge. The whole point of Mishkan is to construct it in such a way that it can be taken apart and transported. If they create the Mishkan, if they follow God’s command - there’s a promise - “I will dwell among them.”


Where is God? Apparently waiting for us to build Him a temple.  


Let’s be honest - how much actual help is that for us? Set aside the geopolitical realities - which are thorny enough as it is - if the problem is that God feels far away, how is a building project supposed to help?   


Why would the God of the Universe - the God of the Unimaginable Expanse of Time and Space - have a special house in a special place on a small planet circling a second-rate star? There’s something that seems almost idolatrous and unreasonable about the whole idea. How can a building contain the presence of God?


The truth is, of course, that they can’t.  


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz teaches a story about a Rabbi who was imprisoned by the Russians and is unexpectedly released within the year. How did he come to be released so quickly, everyone asks. Did he have to collaborate? Did someone in his family bribe a Soviet official?  


“Not at all”, he tells everyone. “When I was thrown into the Gulag, my life was turned upside down. In the midst of the sadness and chaos, I decided that I needed one simple routine. Something to cling to. I committed then and there to always wrap my tefillin.”


“Pfft….” someone in the audience responded. “Surely you’re not going to tell us that God rescued you because you wrapped your tefillin.”


“Not at all,” the rabbi responded again. “But wrapping tefillin gave me a sense of order. A sense that I had something to be committed to. It reminded me that I’m a Jew and I’m glad for it. Life in the Gulag is hard, but I never lost my sense of purpose. Eventually, a few others joined me. Our little community kept us all sane. My jailers thought that for sure we were plotting something, and being from the country, they had never seen tefillin before. They came to me one night, woke me up, and demanded to know what tefillin are. There, as the guard shook my tefillin in my face screaming, the whole thing struck me as a bit odd. How was I going to explain the meaning of tefillin to someone who doesn’t even begin to have the context to understand?”


“What did you tell him?” one of the listeners inquired.


“I told him that they were a way for me to communicate... My jailer froze. Before I could finish, he shouted something to the officer in the other room. He took my tefillin and slammed the door. He didn’t appear for some days and I remained locked in my cell alone. After a week and a half had passed, my jailer appeared again, this time with my tefillin completely disassembled and in a bag. He handed me some papers, told me to sign them, and then said that I was being released.”


A gasp went up from the crowd. “Why on earth did they release you, though?”


“I had the same question. I asked the jailer and he said, ”You’re in the gulag and here you are as happy as can be. No sane man would be happy here unless he had a plan to get out. And when your friends started to be happy like you, we knew you had to be up to no good. And we knew your weird boxes must have had something to do with it. We saw you strap them to your head and heard you mumble in some enemy language. When you confessed to me that they were a communication device, I thought we had all the proof we needed. I ripped them open and there was nothing in them. A few scraps of paper. No transistors, no antennas, no batteries. Nothing! We realized then and there that you’re no conspirator. You’re insane and you need to go before you infect anyone else with your madness.” 


The Rabbi’s tefillin had no magic of their own. They had no batteries to power them. By putting them on, the Rabbi couldn’t compel God to shake open the walls of the Gulag and rescue him. God didn’t need the tefillin to communicate with the Rabbi. The power of the Tefillin was that they allowed the Rabbi to tap into something deep within his Neshama. 

I suspect that the same thing was true of the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash. If we imagine that the Temple is about God’s needs or a magical place to force God’s blessing through ostentatious sacrifices - then we miss the point. 


In this week’s haftarah, King Saul, who was commanded to destroy the Amalekites and their property - doesn’t. Instead, he keeps the livestock and riches of the Amalekites with the half-hearted justification that he and his men had every intention of offering them as sacrifices to God at Gilgul. He assumes that God is like an earthly king - if you betray his command, perhaps you can buy Him off with honor and treasure. He assumed that the power of sacrifice - the work of the Temple - had to do with forcing some change in God. Samuel rebukes him, reminding him that God gave us commands to be obeyed - and then to drive the point home says, ”God is not a man who can be made to feel remorse”.


Not only is there no inherent power to sacrifice or to the location of the Temple, the building itself wasn’t all that special. To an ancient observer, the Beit HaMikdash probably wouldn’t have looked much different from many other temples. A rectangular structure facing east. A series of chambers moving from outdoors to areas that were progressively holier and holier, culminating in the Holy of Holies at the center. Sound familiar? 


It’s a description of the Canaanite Temple at Pella.


The power of the Temple isn’t that it’s capable of containing the Divine Presence or that God needs a home, or that the whole process of Korbanot, it’s not that its construction has any special magic to it - it’s that it’s the place where Israel has encountered God time and time again. The Temple isn’t sacred because it has gold or silver or acacia or tekhelet. The Temple’s sacredness comes from the fact that it awakens something in us that allows us to say with Jacob “God was in this place, but I didn’t know it.”


The power of the Temple was that it opens our eyes to God - and even if there isn’t a Temple standing, it certainly still has much to teach us about where to look to find God. But don’t look to the imposing exterior or to the sacrifices. If we want to know where to look for God, I think we need to look to the beating heart of the Temple - to the Ark, where the voice of God spoke clearly and unmistakably. 


What does the ark represent?


There’s a box of acacia wood wrapped in gold. Resting inside the box sits the Divine Testimony - the Tablets of the Law and above them was the kapporet - a cover of thick gold. Atop the kapporet, stood two Keruvim, facing one another and with their wings outstretched reaching for and touching one another.  


It’s said that when the presence of God descended when the voice of God spoke, it was from here - between the Cherubs.  


Ramban and Ibn Ezra have said that the Golden Calf was a misguided attempt on Israel’s part to design an ark on their own. That the Golden Calf was meant to be a footstool for God, a place where God, who they feared had abandoned them, could descend and be present among his people. If so, what makes the Ark fitting for the Divine Voice to descend, but the Golden Calf an abomination? Both have statues upon them, after all.



Here, the differences are crucial - 


  • The cherubim are two beings; the calf is one.
  • The cherubim are heavenly creatures; the calf is earthly.
  • The cherubim are part of the ark’s cover - sitting above the Divine Testimony; while the calf stands alone.
  • The cherubim frame an empty space above the ark; the calf is made of solid gold.

The Cherubim stand upon the ark of God, contained within it the Tablets. They are two beings, turned toward one another - longing for each other, thinking about each other. As they extend their wings upward, they come together and touch. The Cherubim have the very Torah itself as their foundation, as their foothold. They are two, but in their longing, they become almost one.    

By contrast, the Golden Calf stands alone.  

Many times, and in many religions, we associate religion and piety with being a purely personal matter. IF I only pray enough, I will shake the heavens itself. I will meditate, I will pray, I will conjure God, I will have my own personal experience. If we learn nothing else from the Golden Calf, it should be this - God is not meant to be sought alone. A single person cannot bear the weight of God. If we learn nothing else from the Ark, it should be this - life is not a solitary journey. It’s that God can only be found when our thoughts and attention are turned towards others.

A friend of mine often reminds me that only about 1/3rd of the Mitzvot are bein Adam l’makom - between man and God. The other two-thirds - the vast majority of the mitzvot - are bein Adam l’haveiro - the mitzvot that can only be fulfilled between two people.  


If we want to know where God is - we first have to turn to one another. We have to root ourselves in the experience of Torah that brings us together. We have to reach for one another. Then, and only then, will we find God.


God is only where you let Him in. And we can only let God in if we let others in, as well.


Shabbat Shalom


Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782