“Where is G-d in that?” — that’s the question most often asked by my spiritual director in rabbinical school. It’s sort of the clergy version of “…and how does that make you feel?” The question used to baffle me, because I don’t think G-d can be anywhere in particular. That is to say, I think G-d is everywhere at all times. Still, so often we feel G-d’s absence — in loneliness, in sorrow. If G-d is immanent and permeates the world, then why is that?
The Torah tells us that we must make a container for G-d. “Make me a holy place and I will dwell among you.” Of course, G-d does not actually need a place to dwell, but we need holy spaces, and we need to make them. The creating itself gives us a spiritual task that enlivens the spirit.
Last night a friend of mine shared with me that rules and structure provide a sense of comfort to her. Those boundaries, ironically, lead to a sense of liberation. The Torah is predicated on the notion that we need structure and institutions — not that G-d needs them, but that we need them.
Of course, you can easily argue that a punctilious approach to rules and boundaries leads to inflexibility and futility at best, or cruelty and fascism at worst. Because of its love for tradition and history, religion often gets blamed for the part of human nature that tends toward narrow-mindedness. Many people become atheists because they believe religion corrupts — possibly even more so than because they find it difficult to believe in a higher power.
G-d is not small and does not easily fit into a box. G-d does not place limits on loving people — we do that. So, why does the Torah tell us in this week’s parasha to essentially build a box (the Mishkan) so that G-d will dwell in our midst?
The answer is simple: you cannot have a relationship with the transcendent G-d. You cannot call upon the ineffable when you need to vent. You cannot look to the omnipresent when you feel lost. You cannot cry on the shoulder of the omniscient.
To feel G-d’s presence, we need a container — just like we cannot sense air until it is trapped in a balloon. We know that air is not confined to what is in the balloon, and yet without that balloon, we hardly know it is there at all. So, we build synagogues, we create liturgy for worship, we follow rules like keeping kosher and Shabbat in order to sense G-d’s presence. G-d doesn’t need our constructions, but we need them in order to have a relationship with G-d. The problem arises when we mistake the balloon for the air.
The laws of Shabbat are based inversely on the laws for building the Mishkan detailed in this parasha. There are 39 kinds of work involved in building the Mishkan (Heb. for dwelling place). Each of those 39 kinds of work are prohibited on Shabbat.
Abraham Joshual Heschel explains that by avoiding these kinds of work, we are building a “Palace in Time.” This palace serves as a metaphysical structure in which G-d can dwell.
The act of building itself also provides a spiritual experience. For that reason we are told to work for 6 days and rest on the 7th. The hard work of “building,” allows us to truly rest without guilt. Then on Shabbat we can focus on our relationships with family, friends and children, set aside the nagging work emails, and really give them our full attention.
The Orthodox approach of keeping Shabbat by not using electricity, not driving, etc. is not the only way to build this “Palace in Time.” The Torah provides incredible detail for the Mishkan and the rabbis of the Talmud argued over every detail of the laws of Shabbat — but this is where we have to remember that it’s not about the balloon, but about the air.
The point is to create a structure for holiness in your home life. Whether it is made out of Mylar or “fine linen, tanned ram skins, and acacia wood” — the idea is to make a space for G-d to dwell, to set aside some time in the hectic chaos of your life to feel G-d’s presence. Then we can answer the question, “where is G-d?” with “everywhere.”