Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

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WHERE DOES GOD LIVE?

Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

A three year old boy accompanied his mother upstairs to my synagogue study. While we discussed some aspects of her journey from her faith of origin into a life of Jewish study and practice, the little boy played happily with the “chachkeles” that I keep for such an occasion. Then we went downstairs into the sanctuary, where I conducted a Shabbat eve service for pre-schoolers. We were sipping grape juice, eating challah, singing Shabbat songs, when suddenly, the little boy exclaimed: “I know where God lives!”

“You do?” his mother asked.
“You know, Mommy. We just came from his living room!”

So that’s where God lives—in a room at the highest level of the synagogue. It makes perfect sense--- if you are three years old. But what is the answer for us?

The Pagans of the Biblical world had a simple answer, as well. Gods and Goddesses range freely around the world, and have their heavenly abode, but in a real sense, they live in their Temples. In the semi-annual akitu festival, the Babylonian “Rosh Hashanah”, the gods would be taken from their temples to a special “Akitu house” outside the city walls to enjoy a banquet, celebrating the freeing of their chief God, Marduk, from the clutches of the evil Tiamat—she had imprisoned him in the seven story ziggurat that may well be the original “Tower of Babel”. Then, on the twelfth and final day of the festival, the gods are paraded back to their various temples.

That theology doesn’t work, if you are a Jew. Even King Solomon, who built the Jerusalem Temple, knew this. Near the beginning of his speech, dedicating the new Temple, Solomon confessed

Can God indeed dwell on earth? Heaven itself, the highest
heaven, cannot contain You; how much less this house that
I have built!
(I Sam. 8:27)

So, if according to the Jewish perspective, God does not actually live in the Temple, what is the function of the Temple? And what does the Temple house?

Our tradition knows more than one answer to these questions. Later in the Bible itself, the Book of Deuteronomy offers a creative thought: God’s Name is housed in the Temple. This is found in the book’s instructions concerning how to worship God correctly. “You shall resort to the place which the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to enshrine His Name.” (Deuteronomy 12:5) King Solomon adopted the same terminology: “For God said: From the day when I brought my people Israel out of Egypt, I chose no city out of all the tribes of Israel where I should build a house for my Name…” (I Sam. 8:16).

Why all this? Because our religion’s very point of departure is the uniqueness of God. The rejection of polytheism isn’t just a matter of arithmetic. To understand that there is One God is to comprehend new truths about divinity. One such truth is that no human fabrication—no idol—can be allowed to seduce the eyes or the mind from the worship of the Infinite, the Ein-sof. A god who could be understood to be living in a Temple is not God.

The idea that God’s Name (and not just a synonym, such as “LORD” or “THE NAME”)—God’s actual Name—is in the Temple, giving power to that place, is behind the tradition that the Name is correctly pronounced only by the High Priest, only in the Temple, and only on the Day of Atonement. Truly, this is a Name to conjure with!

There’s another answer, attractive to the mystically-inclined. What inhabits the Temple is God’s “Presence” (In the Kabbalah, personified, as God’s “Shekhinah”).

But like the other answer, this one also leaves more work to be done. “God’s glory fills the world”—God is omnipresent. So of course, God’s Presence is in the Temple, and everywhere else. But when our traditional commentators say that God’s Presence is in the Temple, they have something much more specific in mind.

The mystery behind the Tabernacle is that God’s Presence,
which “dwelled/ was present” (shakhan) publicly on Mount
Sinai (Exodus 24:16) would discreetly do the same in the
Tabernacle (mishkan). Note that in Exodus 40:34-35 the phrase
“The Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle” appears twice,
matching the double phrase “His Presence and His Greatness”
of Deuteronomy 5:21
(Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, commentary to the weekly
portion “Terumah”)

The simplest solution, however, is the one given in our own Torah reading. Let the people build a tabernacle for God, and God will be in their midst. God is not in the room; God is in the community. The Tabernacle (later, the Temple) is neither a collecting box, nor a throne room. The Tabernacle is more like a parabolic mirror, reflecting the incoming light of God to a particular focal point. That point is the Jewish community. Our ancestors built the Tabernacle so that they could amplify the consciousness that God was within them.

The place is important. But you are the image of God. Your neighbor is the image of God. Frequent the place—tabernacle, Temple, synagogue-- to take from it learning and encouragement in how to live. Then, live in the way that God has set forth, and the place will have achieved its purpose.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Michael Panitz