There are many ways to know God is among us

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is for me a somewhat difficult one. It’s all instructions — in excruciating detail — on how to make the sanctuary. But for one verse, Exodus 25:8, I have a hard time relating to it. In that verse, God commands Moses:
“V’asoo li miqdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Let them make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
Why in the world would God want a physical building constructed? Sixteenth-century commentator Alshech expressed this incredulity best:
“The message is mind-boggling! Who can imagine that God’s Presence can be contained on earth, much less in a man-made structure!”
I share Alshech’s incredulity. God is infinite. God is everywhere. How could God be limited to one particular place or building? And yet, the mystical Kabbalists believed it was possible for God to “fit in” to the Sanctuary through tsimtsum, God’s willful self-contraction, the same contraction that allowed for Creation. I, however, am not a mystic, so I continue to search for why God would want us to build a miqdash, a sanctuary.
I believe that the key phrase to look at is the continuation of the verse, “v’shachanti b’tocham, that I may dwell b’tocham, among them.” Not b’tocho, within it, the sanctuary.
But that still leaves me with the question what does it mean to have God dwelling “among them?” I would like to examine how two commentators look at this question.
Sforno, the 15th- and 16th-century commentator, asks, why does God need a sanctuary now in order to dwell among them when previously God dwelt among them without a sanctuary? The answer according to Sforno is found in the sin of the Golden Calf. What Sforno asserted is that when the Jewish people turned to idol worship after their miraculous redemption, God withdrew the Shechina. Only through the agency of the miqdash was God willing to dwell “among them” again.
In contrast, Abravanel, who lived at about the same time as Sforno, argued that: “The Divine intention behind the construction of the miqdash was to combat the idea that God had forsaken the earth and that His throne was in heaven and remote from humankind.”
Thus instead of being the only way for God to be among the people who sinned with the Calf, the sanctuary is actually a symbol of God’s constant immanence, constant presence among all people.
Personally, I think that Sforno and Abravanel get it right when you combine them together. It’s really hard to believe in God, when we’re told that God is everywhere, but invisible. And God doesn’t talk to us with words anymore. Not even visions or dreams. That’s a hard sell. Even for our ancestors who experienced God’s miracles and wonders coming out of slavery in Egypt, that’s a hard sell. We needed a tangible, visible sign that God is really here. Perhaps that’s why our ancestors resorted to the Golden Calf. They needed a physical, visible, tangible sign of God here on earth. As Abravanel said, we needed to know that God isn’t up in heaven, inaccessible and unknowable. And as Sforno said, we needed a legitimate physical, tangible, visible sign of God’s presence among us that was NOT the Golden Calf, for us to feel God’s presence. We needed a sanctuary, for God to dwell among us.
And today when we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem? For me, going out into the natural world and marveling at God’s creation reminds me of God’s Presence. The loving, caring, personal relationships I have, show me God is here. Getting lost in the study of God’s word connects me directly to God. We don’t need to have a physical dwelling to recognize that God among us.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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