Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?

Last week's parsha video outlines the mishkan as a 'face' of God, and this week, he delves into the paradox - how can God be both outside of space and time, and in our physical world? Rabbi Fohrman argues that maybe the face of the mishkan gives us the answer, and begins to explore the similarities between humankind and God.


Parshat Tetzaveh


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Tetzaveh. This week’s video is a continuation of the ideas I began to develop  in last week’s video on Terumah. So if you haven’t seen that one yet, I recommend you take a quick look and then come back and you can watch this.

Last week we noticed that the schematic of the Mishkan seem to resemble that of a face. We were trying to figure out what to make of that and I want to suggest to you the following theory: perhaps the very structure of the Mishkan is there to answer a burning question that anyone should have when they conceive of the very concept of a Mishkan.

“V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tochem.” Make me a mikdash, a holy place, and let me dwell amongst you, God says. But there is a problem with that notion, the notion of God dwelling amongst us. You know the old Uncle Moishe song: [child singing] “HaShem is here, HaShem is here, HaShem is truly everywhere. Up up, down down…”

But when we actually subject that song to critical analysis, is Hashem, is God, really everywhere? Well, you might say He sees everywhere, you might say He has influence everywhere. But the notion that God actually is everywhere, that in this tree is God, that in this grass is God…that, if you take it literally, is actually Pantheism, the notion that God is immanent everywhere in the world and Pantheism is something which we don’t usually associate with Judaism. We, for example, think that it’s wrong to bow to a tree. We call that idolatry. But if really all the tree is is God, it’s hard to understand how it would be wrong to bow to the tree, you’re just bowing to God.

Classical Judaism seems to reject the idea of Pantheism with the idea instead of God’s Kedusha, God’s holiness. The word holiness really means separateness. God is separate, ultimately separate from our world. The angels in Kedushah say “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh HaShem tzva’ot.” “Separate, separate, separate is the Lord of hosts.” “Ayeh makom kvodo?” they asked. “Where is the place of his glory?”

Even the angels, the most transcendent beings there are, can’t find the place. Now, in Kedushah we do say, “kvodo maleh olam,” that God’s glory, as it were, fills the world. God’s glory fills the world. Evidence of God fills the world. God’s influence fills the world, but God himself, “ayeh makom kvodo?” What’s the source of all of that? What’s the place it all comes from? That eludes all creatures. And there is a reason it eludes all creatures. Precisely because we are creatures, and because God is our Creator. We live in the fish bowl of God’s making and it’s very hard for fish to see outside the fish bowl.

I was once having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine who was complaining that he didn’t see God anywhere in the world and that if God was truly around, how come we couldn’t see more of him? And I gave this analogy to him. I said “you know what you remind me of? You know on any good monopoly board, there’s these icons—there’s the little hat and the little shoe? So imagine a conversation between the little hat and the little shoe. So one day the Little Hat says to Little Shoe: “do you believe in Parker?” So Little Shoe says: “what do you mean do I believe in Parker?” So Little Hat says, “well, you know, right here on the board it says ‘made by Parker Brothers? Do you believe in Parker?” And Little Shoe says “well, I guess so.”

Little Hat says “you know, let me tell you something, I’ve been around here a long time. I go around this board every week. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen jail, I’ve seen free parking, I’ve see Tennessee Avenue, Park Place, Boardwalk, the whole thing. And you know what, I’ve never run into Parker. He’s not here. I don’t believe in Parker.” Well, what do you say to Little Hat?  You say, “Little Hat, do you really expect to meet Parker on the board? Parker is the creator of the board. You live on the board along with Little Shoe and all the other icons. Parker made the board. Obviously the one who made the board isn’t going to live on the board.”

The board is its own little world, its own little game world. The maker of the game is obviously in a different realm, is kadosh, is separate from the board. And God is Kadosh, separate from our world. And this of course leads to the problem. How can it be that there is such a thing as a Mikdash, as a sanctuary in which God can dwell in our world? God is out of our world. The sages themselves talked about this.

One of the words we have for God is “Makom.” God is ‘The Place.’ What does it mean when we call God ‘The Place?’ So the sages say, “mifnei she-hu makomo shel olam eyn ha-olam makomo.” “Because He is the place of the world but the world is not his place.”  What does that mean? That’s a kind of mind-bending thought. What it means is that the world is not his place. The idea of ‘place’ is an environment for something. God’s environment is not this world. He doesn’t live in this world.

So where is God? He is The Place. He is The Place of this world. If you would imagine this entire world, space and time itself, what is the vessel, so to speak, that holds space and time? That’s God. It's almost like God surrounds our universe in a non-spatial, non-temporal way, holds it. God himself does not live within the universe of space and time. God lives in a Kadosh realm, an entirely separate realm. So what does it mean then that God could live in our world, in a Mikdash? And maybe the schematic of the Mishkan, the face, gives us the answer.

God’s answer, as it were, is “I can't explain to you how this paradox works, but I can show you how the paradox works. Because the same problem you have with my presence, as it were, manifesting itself in your physical world—that same problem you have with me, you also have with yourselves. You experience that paradox every day in your own being because—let me ask you this question—who are you, you human beings? Are you your finger? God forbid you lose your finger, are you any less you? Are you your arm? Who are you?”  

Most of us, when we really begin to think deeply about that would say that our sense of self is really associated with our mind, our consciousness—that thinking, feeling part of us. And what really is that? Is it your brain? Well, it’s kind of associated with our brain. But our brain is something physical and we sense that our minds are more than physical. It’s almost like our brain is a machine and we’re the driver, almost like we’re a cloud hovering over our brain.

A cloud hovering over our brain. What does the Torah say about where God is in the Mishkan? “Ki b’anan ereh al ha-kaporet.” “I will appear in a cloud, hovering over the Ark.” What was the Ark? The Ark was the brain. It has the tablets of the law in it. We relate to it cognitively. God says, as it were, “make me a face and I will dwell among you. I am an entirely separate spiritual being but you know what? You, you human beings, you’re created in the image of God. You too are spiritual beings. Your souls, your consciousness hover like a cloud above your brain.

Now can you understand how this entirely spiritual thing, how that connects and relates to your very physical body. In some sort of way, the mind connects with the brain seamlessly, but is not identified with it. It’s as if there is spiritual cloud hovering above the brain. You experience it every day with your own face.

God says, “I will connect to your world the same way you connect to your own bodies.” And maybe that’s the message of the Mishkan. That, as crazy as it seems for a being that is outside of space and outside of time to somehow inhabit the world of space and time, it actually happens. We can help make it happen. We can create something, a place for God in our world, and invite God in and it actually works. Can we understand it? No. Does it make any sense? No. It makes just as much sense as how your own sense of consciousness inhabits your own face. Can you understand that? No. Is it real? Very much so. God’s presence in our world can be real too.  

In our day and age, we have no Mishkan, we have no temple, but maybe our task at some level remains the same. The Mishkan teaches us not to be intimidated, not to give up on inviting the transcendent God into our world. It can happen. We can make places for God. What place will you make for God in your own life?


Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. I want to let you know I always love hearing your feedback. There’s a little space for comment under these videos, place take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at.

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