The Grandeur and Grace in Our Lives

Terumah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 12, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Prayer

In Hebrew it is customary not to pronounce the name of God as written. The roundabout expression is a mark of awe and respect. Thus in the world of contemporary Orthodoxy people usually refer to God as hashem, the name, short for shem hameforash, the explicit name of God, which has long been studiously avoided. Put simply, God is the Being with a holy name. An excess of intimacy would violate God’s grandeur. The sobriquet frees us to speak often and personally about God without disrespect, allowing us to bring the God of the cosmos into our everyday lives.

The same dynamic is evident in our parashah which speaks of God as residing in the Tabernacle. God orders Moses to instruct the Israelites to “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8). The verb to dwell, shakhon, gave rise in rabbinic Judaism to a new name for God, Shekhinah, the One Who Is Indwelling. It appears early on in the second-century Aramaic translation of this verse by Onkelos: “And you should make before Me (rather than for Me) a sanctuary that I may cause My Presence (Shekhinah) to dwell among them.” Clearly, Onkelos was prompted to soften the unsettling concreteness of our verse with a degree of separation.

He did so elsewhere when the depiction of God was too human for comfort. At the meal which concluded the covenant at Sinai, the Torah reports that the leaders of the Israelites “beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11). Onkelos, however, chose to paraphrase: “They saw the glory of God and rejoiced in the reception of their sacrifices as if they were eating and drinking.” Similarly, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai for a second time. “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Again, Onkelos introduced a remove, “and the Lord passed His Presence (Shekhinteh) before him and proclaimed.”

In his meticulous work on the thought of the Rabbis, Professor Ephraim Urbach showed just how widespread the term Shekhinah became in rabbinic parlance. If a husband and wife enjoy a happy union, then the Shekhinah dwells in their midst. Or God chose a lowly bramble to confront Moses to make the tangential point “that there is no spot on earth devoid of God’s Presence (Shekhinah)”. Or the induction of a gentile to Judaism is described as coming “under the wings of the Shekhinah (Hazal, pp. 34-37).

Theology is what drove this change in nomenclature. How can we conceive of God as both transcendent and immanent? Our knowledge of the universe demands a Creator who is grand, majestic and remote; our insufficiency pleads for a God who is nearby and caring. The profusion of divine names in Judaism attests to the many ways in which we humans experience God. As Shekhinah, God is accessible, convinced and supportive. A midrash imagines Moses to be astonished by God’s command to erect an abode for God here on earth. “Lord of the universe, behold the heavens in all their expanse cannot contain You and You say ‘Make Me a sanctuary!’ But the Holy One, may He be blessed, responded: ‘Moses, you misconstrue what I ask. Just take twenty planks for the north side and twenty for the south and eight for the west. And I will come down and contract My Presence (Shekhinati) to be with you below.'” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, ed. by Mandelbaum, p. 33).

In other words, transcendence and immanence are not mutually exclusive. Having painted the big picture, God does not walk away from the details. God’s grandeur is not lessened by remaining engaged by what God has wrought. Yet another midrash manages the polarity with an unforgettable image. The Tent of Meeting in which God will henceforth speak to Moses is akin to a cave at the seashore. When the sea rushes in at high tide to fill it, the sea is not diminished in the least (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, p. 4).

Judaism never cut the Gordian knot. It stubbornly refused to sever the polarities. The history of its theology is an unending struggle to be true to heart and mind, to a divine reality that is intimate yet infinite, loving yet beyond reach. The retention of polarities acknowledges the complexity of existence. For depth, we need two lenses. The paradigm, according to Rabbi Yohanan, is already firmly established throughout Scripture. “Wherever you find a reference to God’s transcendence (gevurato), you will also find a reference to God’s immanence (anvetanuto).” Whereas a single prooftext from Scripture is usually enough to affirm a proposition, R. Yohanan provides us with three, one from each section of the Tanakh, as if to put the polarity of transcendence and immanence beyond dispute. Whenever the Bible comes to speak of God’s grandeur, it immediately references the comfort of God’s grace (BT Megillah 31a).

And, indeed, the Siddur turns on the juxtaposition of the two. At the beginning of the morning service, we orient ourselves by meditating on the magnificent Ibn Gabirol poem,Adon Olam, which moves effortlessly from reason to faith. Uninhibited by the truisms of philosophy about the nature of God, the poet asserts midway through that his personal God and Redeemer is the eternal and incomparable God of creation. God’s tender love enables him to live without fear.

Prior to the Shema, in Ahavah Rabbah, we ask God to unite our hearts in the love and fear of God’s name. But can we do both at once? Only if we realize that it is God’s grandeur that imbues us with the emotion of fear, just as God’s grace fills us with love. A single state of mind cannot do justice to our experience of God’s manysidedness.

Finally, in the opening berakhah of the silent Amidah, we approach God in the spirit of R. Yohanan as: “Great, mighty, awesome, exalted God who bestows loving-kindness.” Grandeur and grace are the complementary keys in which God becomes palpable in our lives.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Terumah are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.