The Paradox Of God Dwelling Among Us: Part I
Infinite God...Physical Home?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How are we supposed to understand that God dwells among us? Are we meant to take it literally, or is it merely a metaphor? After all, God is an infinite being, so how can He exist in a finite world?
In this three-part series, Rabbi Fohrman looks at God's original dwelling place among man – the Tabernacle. How does the Tabernacle help us understand how God dwells among us, even today without a Tabernacle?
When we talk about the Temple what really are we talking about? In the words of the verse we're talking about this notion; V'osu li Mikdash v'shochanti betochom – make for Me a Mikdash, a Temple, and I will dwell within your midst. I want to just ask what is it that we really mean by that? I guess what I want to ask is, is that metaphorical or is it actually true?
Does God Really Dwell Among Us?You know, is it metaphorical in the sense that well, G-d will be living within us doesn't really mean G-d will be living within us, it's not like you can knock on G-d's door and say, hi G-d. Or is there some sense in which this is like literally true? That the Temple is G-d's place within us, that He's sort of here? How is it that we might understand that? I'd like to present to you a theory. A theory that in some sense, this idea of G-d dwelling within us, is literally true and you can see it through a very, very startling aspect of the Temple, through its construction. What I'd like you to do is to adopt a sort of aerial view of the Temple, of the Tabernacle, imagine that you are peering down from space, zooming in, looking in on the Temple, and you could take away the tops of the buildings, the ceilings, and you could look inside, what would it look like? What would the floor plan look like?
Now if you play along with me, what you would actually see is something very, very startling. Let's take a look. The first thing you'd see if you zoomed in on the Kodesh Kedoshim – the Holy of Holies – is you would see an area of the Temple which had nothing except for the Aron Kodesh – except for the Holy Ark. Inside the Holy Ark would be representatives of the Torah, would be the two Luchot – the tablets of the Ten Commandments. That was the Holy of Holies and you can never go in there, and it was a very special place.
But then there was a curtain that would separate that place from the next chamber in the Temple, and in the next chamber of the Temple the first thing you would see are two things; you would see the Menorah on the one hand and then you would see the Shulchan – the Table, where there was this Showbread. That's what you would see right opposite the Menorah. Then you go down a little bit further you would see a Mizbayach ha'Ketoret – you would see an Incense Altar – and right beyond that you would see a very long ramp, extending horizontally, leading up to a much larger Altar – the Mizbayach ha'Chitzon, where offerings would be offered in the Temple.
Now let's play a kind of Rorschach test with this. If I would ask you to look at this and say what does this remind you of? If you could imagine this is like ink blots and you would have to free associate, and say, that vision which you see from space, those things in the Temple, arranged in that kind of way, what does it look like? Well I'll tell you what it looks like to me – and it's going to sound crazy to you, but give me a second to make my case. What it actually looks like is it looks like a face.
Start from the top; there's a chamber and inside the chamber there's the Torah, right in the middle, right about where the brain would be. How do we relate to the Torah, by the way? We relate to it with our brains. It's something we relate to cognitively, there's laws in the Torah. Then right below that, right below this kind of curtain, there are these two things; right where the eyes would be, by the way. What are those things? The Menorah and the Shulchan on which there was this bread that wasn't eaten, it was just there for show, it was there to be seen, not consumed. Think about eyes, what do eyes do, what do you need for sight? You have to have light and the light has to illuminate something, something to see. We have the Menorah, the Menorah provides light. Then you have something to see, Showbread. Even the name of the Showbread is striking, isn't it? Lechem Ha'panim – bread of the face.
Then right below these two eyes what you would have exactly where the nose would be? The Mizbayach ha'Ketoret – the Incense Altar. How do you relate to incense? It's something that you smell, we relate to it with our noses. Right below that you have this really long ramp leading up to this Mizbayach ha'Chitzon – leading up to this altar where offerings are consumed. It looks like a mouth. And it does what a mouth would do, it consumes offerings.
It looks like we're looking at a face. But at this moment you say to yourself, oh my gosh, what is this, it almost seems pagan? How do we relate that?
How Can an Infinite God Dwell in a Finite Place?Don't we have this notion that G-d is not a physical form, a human G-d, that's not our religion, right? How is it that we understand this? It sounds startling, disturbing, what are we supposed to make of this?
So I'd like to suggest a theory, the theory is, is that this face-like dimension of the Temple, is actually there to help us come to grips with a kind of paradox. A paradox that relates to the very question which I started out asking you, what is this notion that G-d dwells in our midst? Is it really true, or is just sort of a metaphor? If it's really true there's a kind of problem with that being really true, there's a paradox inherent in it being true, the face, I believe, is an answer to that paradox. What I want to do is to elaborate that paradox and then try to show you how the face might be its solution.