Torah Portion of the Week: Where Is God?

Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei.

The erection of the Tabernacle and sacred vessels, from 'Figures de la Bible' (1728).

“Where is God? He is where one allows him to enter.” This statement is attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a Hasidic thinker in 19th-century Poland. One possible meaning of the statement is that God is potentially everywhere but that the ability to sense his presence depends on our righteousness or outlook. But it may be saying something more: Perhaps God’s presence, not just one’s awareness of it, depends on us and on the place we provide for him – not metaphorically, but an actual location.

This week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38), relates to where God is and where we let him enter. It describes the erection of the portable Tabernacle in detail, ending with a description, in what is the final chapter of the Book of Exodus, of God’s entry into the sanctuary that has been constructed for him: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence [literally, ‘the glory’] of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34). This vivid description raises questions concerning personification, abstraction, the place of God and the significance of his presence in the sanctuary.

The Torah offers various answers to these questions. This week’s portion belongs to the Priestly Source thread, which, in previous readings, presented the instructions Moses received on Mount Sinai for construction of the Tabernacle, and continues through the Book of Leviticus and beyond. When we separate the Torah’s intertwined narrative threads, we can focus on how God is perceived in each. Anne Katherine Knafl does this in her book “Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch.”

The Priestly Source’s declaration regarding God’s image appears in its rendering of the Creation story, which asserts that humankind was created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and in the “likeness of God” (Gen. 5:1); these terms express a visual resemblance. The declaration is theomorphic, not anthropomorphic: It is not that God is created in the image of human beings, rather that they are created in the divine image. Anyway, they resemble them in their form.

Additional Priestly episodes indicate that perhaps God does reveal himself in human form. When Abraham encounters his Hittite neighbors, he bows down and then speaks: “Thereupon Abraham bowed low to the people of the land, the Hittites, and he said to them... ” (Gen. 23:7-8). When God first turns to Abraham, we read, “the Lord appeared to Abram” (Gen. 17:1), without knowing in what form he appears. Later, however, the Torah states twice that “Abram threw himself on his face” (Gen. 17:3, 17) before addressing his neighbors. The similarity between Abraham’s reactions to the Hittites and to God indicates a similarity between human and divine presence.

Where does God come from when he appears before Abraham? The answer is alluded to: “And when he was done speaking with him, God was gone [literally, ‘ascended’] from Abraham” (Gen. 17:22). God rises – apparently heavenward. During the patriarchs’ era, he has no permanent residence among mortals and appears whenever necessary. When Israel suffers bondage in Egypt, we read, “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God” (Exod. 2:23). God does not dwell among them, and their cry ascends toward him. To dwell in Israel’s midst permanently, God needs a sanctuary: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8).

According to Knafl, God’s revelation to the patriarchs was partial and diminished, as compared to his revelation in the Tabernacle, which begins after Israel’s arrival at Mount Sinai: “ the cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain” (Exod. 24:15-17). God, who up until now resided in heaven and revealed himself only rarely to human beings, descends to Mount Sinai, in Israel’s presence, to meet Moses and provide him with detailed instructions on the Tabernacle’s construction, and he waits there until work on its construction is finished. The text uses the term “Presence of God,” for the first time presenting a rich, visual description of the revelation. Israel does not actually see God, but it does see the cloud-enveloped fire.

Knafl’s claim regarding different forms of divine revelation in different historical periods is similar to the distinction Israel Knohl makes, in his book “The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School,” between God’s revelation to the patriarchs and his revelation during the era of Moses: God reveals himself to the patriarchs as El Shaddai, but only before Moses does he explicitly reveal himself according to his true name. However, whereas Knohl sees in the divine revelations during Moses’ time the abstract, impersonal aspects of God, Knafl emphasizes that God continues to be described in human terms even when he dwells in Israel’s midst.

After God enters the Tabernacle, we learn what will happen to Israel: “When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys... For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Exod. 40:36-38). Whereas Israel will always see the cloud and the fire, God’s glory is revealed only rarely – usually in a crisis – such as in the spies’ narrative: “the Presence of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites” (Numbers 14:10).

God’s reaction to the spies’ sin is remarkably human: “I have heeded the incessant muttering of the Israelites against me. Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘I will do to you just as you have urged me” (Num. 14:27-28). God’s vow of vengeance suits a dynamic personality, not an abstract entity. The complaints no longer have to ascend to God, as in Egypt, because he now dwells in Israel’s midst, hearing its complaints at close hand.

But the best evidence of God’s human qualities during the Tabernacle’s era is the Tabernacle itself, which is housed in a luxurious, well-furnished and illuminated tent where priests run about like servants in a palace, ostensibly presenting food to the king. God will now convey precise instructions on the sanctuary’s maintenance. That is why God summons Moses; this is the link between the end of Exodus and the beginning of Leviticus.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.