By Rabbi David Singer
In the year 586 BCE, the Babylonians set siege to Jerusalem. At the end of their attack, the Temple lay in ruins, and our ancestors were sent into exile. The center of Jewish worship was destroyed.
The sages of our tradition wondered how it was possible that humans destroyed a Divine abode. Surely, that must be impossible. They inferred that the Temple could have been destroyed by people only if God’s presence had left the complex prior to its siege. Why then, they asked, would God leave His own house in the first place?
In Masechet Rosh Hashanah of the Babylonian Talmud (31a), the rabbis teach about 10 steps taken by the Divine Presence, as God progressively removed Himself from the Temple, methodically withdrawing, then waiting for the people to notice God’s absence. They did not. God yearned to be noticed.
God’s 10th journey, we are taught, was to the Wilderness, where the Israelites had first encountered the Divine generations prior. God waited. The Jewish people did not come looking. So God receded His presence to the Heavens, and thus the Temple was able to be destroyed. This evocative Midrash invites us to appreciate a God that is omnipresent, waiting for us, yearning for us.
Similarly, in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, we read about the completion of the building of the Tabernacle. After the building is completed, God invites Moses toward the Tent of Assembly. However, Moses is unable to enter the Mishkan because, the text says, it is filled with God’s presence.
Most of our commentators deduce this passage to mean that a person and God cannot fill the same space — that God is too great for there to be room left for a human. But Ibn Ezra, the 11th-century Spanish sage, breaks from the explanations of his peers and suggests that Moses could not enter the Tent “until God called on him to enter the tent and they spoke face to face.” The Torah notes that Moses was unable to enter the Tabernacle because he had not yet been invited in. Once he was invited, Moses and the Divine spoke directly, intimately.
The only impediment to Moses connecting with God was hearing a call to enter. In the time of the First Temple, God waited for the people to join Him in the wilderness; alone and lonely, God departed. God, it seems, is a presence yearning to be seen, sought and wanted.
In a world, at a time, when the Holy can so easily seem distant, a time of war and conflict and acrimony and, of course, pestilence, this imagery of Divine invitation and desire may help to reorient, comfort and guide us. So often we are compelled to wait for God. “Where is God? When will God show Himself?” we might ask. What if our inclinations, though, our intuitions about the Divine are backward?
What if God is right here waiting for us?
The question, then, is what each of us does to merit that invitation, to heed the calling and to respond to the opportunity. Each day, each week, each interaction with our family, our friends, our community, is an opportunity to mirror that invitation, to see holiness in the moments before us and embody Godliness in how we respond: in how we treat this earth, how we heal our relationships, how we respect ourselves and our bodies and our potentials.
That is the charge of a nation of priests. That is the responsibility of a light unto the nations. That is our birthright, our mantle, our duty.
God’s invitation awaits you. Will you RSVP?
Rabbi David Singer is executive director of Limmud North America, an organization that strengthens the bonds of community through Jewish learning. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.