God . . .Near or Far?
God . . .Near or Far?
In the Torah portion of this week, T’rumah , God tells Moses that, having received the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Israelites in the desert are to build a Tabernacle, here called a mikdash , and gives him specific instructions as to how they must set it up. This portable sanctuary, 100 cubits long (about 150 feet) and 50 cubits wide, included an “ark [ aron ] of acacia wood” (Exodus 25:10), containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, and was to be protected by a “ chaporet [cover] of pure gold” (Exodus 25:17). The remarkable aspect of this cover was that it contained two cherubim on each side. God’s revelations would henceforth take place in this empty space: “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you?from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact?all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people” (Exodus 25:22).
What were these cherubim? In medieval art, we find angelic figures usually portrayed as little children depicted with wings. Often, these are known as “cherubs.” However, this identification is incorrect, for it confuses cherubs with “putti,” which are pudgy babies with wings. Cherubs have a longer history, dating back to Mesopotamia, where they were called kuribu (same root as the Hebrew, k’ruv); these were large-winged animals that stood by city gates or palaces as symbols of protection. In the Bible, cherubs appear as embroideries on curtains or standing alone as sculptures. In fact, in the First Temple there were two olive-wood cherubs, each ten cubits high, plated with gold, and standing on each side of the Ark (I Kings 6:23?28). Cherubs protected the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), were at times identified with winds (Psalm 18:11), and represented the throne on which the indivisible God resided (I Samuel 4:4; II Kings 19:15). Though playing a major role in the structure of the First Temple, they were not present in the Second Temple.
Two Perceptions of God
The divine revelation occurring “from between the two cherubim” reflects only one of the two major perceptions of God in the Bible. According to the first, God is immanent; according to the other, God is transcendent. The line between the two images of God is not so clear, but enough can be culled from the biblical texts to indicate that different schools of thought viewed God differently in ancient times.
Saying that God is immanent means that God is within the universe, though distinct from it; God is the world’s sustaining cause. God is near, here below, among us, even in our hearts. The ancient priestly texts spoke of God primarily as being in the Temple. This is called “the theology of glory” ( kavod ), because during divine revelation the glory/presence of God appeared in the sanctuary—“The Presence of the Eternal [ k’vod YHVH ] filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34; cf. Numbers 14:10)—and God, as in our Torah portion, T’rumah, spoke “from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact” (Exodus 25:22; cf. Numbers 7:89).
In the other view, God is transcendent, that is, above and distinct from the universe. The school of Deuteronomy in particular, through its “name theology,” reflects God’s transcendence by insisting that God lives in the heavens above: “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven” (Deuteronomy 26:15); God only places ( shakein or sum ) the divine “Name” on earth: “you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Eternal your God will choose to establish [ l’shakein ] the divine name” (Deuteronomy 12:11; cf. 12:5). The expression “to place the name” is an idiom reflected in the Babylonian texts ( shuma shakanu) that proclaims ownership and hegemony.
These two approaches have always been in tension in Jewish thought, whether in the Bible or Rabbinic literature. Sometimes one approach was emphasized, sometimes the other. Interestingly, in one of the Talmudic passages commenting on our biblical verse in the Torah portion, “There I will meet with you . . .” (Exodus 25:22), the Rabbis seem to give weight to the transcendence of God when they state, “Neither did the Shechinah ever descend to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven” (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah5a).
In our daily life, we too vacillate between these two perceptions of the Divine. At times, we perceive God as a transcendent Being that is beyond us and above us, as the ground of our existence, and at other times we need God to be within our heart, motivating us to do godly acts. Though we have no more priests to offer sacrifices for us, nor do we have cherubs guarding our sanctuaries, we can derive an important lesson from T’rumah, one of the key texts for God’s immanence. That is, we need to feel God’s indwelling presence, to see signs of the Divine in our everyday deeds, in our interactions with others, and to reflect God’s reality in our lives by doing godly acts of justice and righteousness.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, and a faculty member of the Theology Department at Boston College
Rabbi Sonsino has pointed out the tension in Jewish thought between God’s nearness (immanence) and God’s distance from us (transcendence). Our Torah portion, T’rumah , as he correctly points out, focuses on many ways in which God’s nearness or immanence can be perceived. In addition to speaking from between the cherubim, God specifically instructs the Israelites to build the Mishkan , the portable desert Tabernacle, as the home of the indwelling God: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The Tabernacle is to be the actual place where God will live here on earth with us!
The portion also describes the holy vessels and holy instruments that will be a part of the Tabernacle. God gives instructions to build the Ark of the Pact (also known as the Ark of the Covenant), the cover of pure gold, the table for the bread of display, the curtain panels, the walls of the Tabernacle, the golden rings, the parochet(the sacred “curtain partition” that separates the Holy of Holies from the outer courtyard of the Tabernacle), and the beautiful golden lampstand (menorah) that becomes a symbol of the Jewish nation. Each of these is a visible representation and token of God’s nearness. Each aspect creates the proper environment for us to perceive God’s presence.
The Israelites are to build and craft these things from their own “gifts,” their t’rumah. How incredible it must have been to see and feel God’s holy presence in the everyday items contributed by the Israelites! We can imagine their radical amazement to feel the Divine Presence in the ordinary and see it transformed into the extraordinary!
Today our synagogues have visible reminders of the holy Mishkan . The menorah is still represented as a symbol of our people, and many communities have a seven-branched menorah in their temples. The eternal light burns above the holy ark in each congregation. Many communities have a parochet , a sacred partition that separates the Torah scrolls and keeps them hidden from view, as the Holy of Holies was separated from view. These sacred vessels today are to remind us that the synagogue is the heir to the Mishkan and the Temple and that God still dwells in our midst. May we open our eyes to see God’s presence there and open our hearts to feel God’s nearness!
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California.
T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
Haftarah, I Kings 5:26-6:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 717-718; Revised Edition, pp. 559-560