Hide and seek God

By Rabbi Matt Rutta
Parashat Terumah

We have arrived at the scriptural time of the year that rabbis start to dread. Since the beginning of our yearly Torah cycle, the text has focused mainly on narrative, from the creation of the world to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This week’s Torah Portion, Terumah, is the first parashah that is composed entirely of commandments and no narrative. Terumah deals with instructions to create vessels of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that would be the focus of worship for the Israelites for their entire journey through the desert and conquest of the land until they ultimately built the First Temple in Jerusalem. Unless you have a degree in architecture or engineering, your eyes might glaze over in confusion from the detailed descriptions of building materials and dimensions. Even Moses traditionally is flummoxed and has to be visually shown every detail. He is commanded to assign the artisanship to the talents of Betzalel and Oholiab, who have the skills necessary to understand how to bring this vision to fruition. So one may be excused for believing that it is difficult to learn anything meaningful from this section. This is incorrect. For example, there is an absolute gem of a verse, Exodus 25:8, that commands, “Ve’asu Li Mikdash ve’shachanti betocham,”“and they shall build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them” — not in IT, in THEM! This suffixed pronoun indicates that we must invite God into ourselves. God is wherever we let God in.

There is a beautiful story that comes from the Kabbalistic mystical tradition of Rabbi Isaac Luria (Sefer Etz Chaim, Gate 1). When God desired to create the universe it was impossible as God being Ein Sof, the Infinite One, occupied all space and time. Therefore, in order to create it, God contracted (tzimtzum) and from the new void created the universe. This super-concentration of divine light, God placed into vessels which were too weak to hold their extreme holiness; the vessels shattered and the sparks were spread throughout the world.

On the surface, this story seems to put a limit on God, as it were. It brings to mind the omnipotence paradox, which asks, “Could God create a rock so large that God could not lift it?” (or, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Could (God) microwave a burrito so hot that (God) could not eat it?”) In fact, I think this establishes our human responsibility as partners in God’s creation and in making God’s world a better place. The point of our existence, according to this story, is that by doing mitzvot (commandments) and maasim tovim (good deeds) we gather the sparks of divinity and reunite them with our Creator, thus repairing the world (tikkun olam). We exist as a solution to this paradox.

We too can and must engage in tzimtzum. According to Rav Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Mohoran 56:3), in response to Deuteronomy 31:17-18 where God says that, in a day of anger, God will surely hide His countenance, “Yet, in truth, even in all the hiddenness, even in most hidden of the most hidd`en, surely the God of Praise can be found there because there is nowhere or nothing in which there is not God’s life force.” Even in the worst of times when things seem darkest, even the tiniest light will have a huge influence. Like God, who contracted divine light, we must allow space for the divine within ourselves.

He also writes, “Know that a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge and the main thing is to not be afraid at all” (48:2). We are, once again, living in very dark times for our people. It would be very easy to despair. Hundreds of our sisters and brothers (including my friend, Shlomi Ziv) are living in the darkness of captivity in Gaza and we are facing hate against Jews at a level unprecedented since the Shoah. We must remain strong with confidence in both the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and in Hashem Tzvaot, the God of Armies, who together do battle for us. We must make our voices heard and not be afraid. May our captives be soon reunited with their families and our soldiers accomplish their goals and return home safely and speedily. Then we can truly allow God to dwell within each of us as a sanctuary for the divine.

Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed., is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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