Among these spiritual matters that occupied the minds of the rabbis of the midrash was the subject of God’s agenda in creating the material universe. Perhaps God’s need for the spiritual side of the universe - the heavens, the angels, etc. - was pretty obvious. God was essentially spiritual, so God needed a spiritual ‘place’ to be. But the material world – all the dirt and shmutz, all the wars and diseases, all the physical problems and emotional hang-ups – who needs it? Did God really have to get his divine hands dirtied creating ugly weeds, slimy animals, or people with smelly feet and obnoxious personalities? This was the type of question these rabbis of the midrash spent their considerable knowledge and wisdom engaged in. Why did God need to create the physical world?
It turns out that there is a section in the 9th century work known as the Midrash Tanhuma (a midrashic compilation put together by a rabbi named Tanhum) that addresses this exact issue. This particular midrash elaborates on the subject of the Mishkan – the tabernacle that God instructed the Israelites to erect in the wilderness of Sinai following the Exodus from Egypt. The tabernacle is described in great detail over several chapters in the book of Exodus. Finally, in the 7th chapter of the book of Numbers, the tabernacle was completed and ready for a 12-day long dedication ceremony. The midrash kicks in at this point:
‘And it was on the day when Moshe completed erecting the tabernacle…’ – the phrase ‘and it was’ indicates something that had happened but was interrupted for some time, and then was restored like it was originally. At the time when the Holy One created the world, He desired to have a dwelling place in the lower realms, just as He had a dwelling place in the upper realms. He called to Adam and commanded him to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam transgressed this commandment. The Holy One said to him, ‘Did I not desire to have a dwelling place in the lower realms just as I have in the upper realms? I commanded you in this one thing and you did not keep it.’ Immediately, the Holy One removed His dwelling to the heavens.
The Midrash then goes through a series of Biblical incidents (Cain’s murder of Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, etc.) that successively removed God’s dwelling place higher up into the heavens. Finally, a series of Biblical personalities (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, etc.) successively lowered God’s dwelling place closer to the lower realms. It ends with Moshe erecting the tabernacle which brought God’s dwelling place back down to earth, as He originally desired.
This fascinating Midrash is not without its theological problems. First off, what’s with God scooting up and down this spiritual elevator, like someone changing floors in an apartment building? Isn’t God supposed to be in all places at all times? Second, if God really desired to dwell somewhere on earth, why didn’t He create things in such a way that nothing could get in the way of fulfilling that desire? Third, how is it possible that the moral behavior of human beings could block or facilitate the desires of God? Are we really that powerful that we can control where God dwells? Finally, what does it mean for God to ‘dwell in the lower realms’ to begin with, and what are we supposed to do to make that happen?
Let’s begin with the last question. The lower realms, of course, are nowhere other than right here in our very midst. According to this midrash, this was God’s intention from the get go, to dwell among us. The very reason we have so much difficulty feeling the presence of God as we go about our lives is because God ‘removes’ his presence from among us to some ethereal realm that is somewhere out in the heavenly boondocks. Do you wonder where God is when you really need him/her/it, or when you just want to feel reassured that God really exists? Why isn’t God ‘there’ at the press of a spiritual button? The answer is that God wants to be there, but simply cannot find the spiritual ‘space’ to fit into our world.
What would it feel like to us to have God dwell among us? The only way to answer this question is by example. If you have ever felt the sense of wonder, the sense of total oneness, that sometimes arises spontaneously when gazing at a beautiful starlit sky or a serene meadow, you may have sensed a glimmer of the presence of God. If you have experienced the very personal fulfillment of knowing that you have actually done a truly good deed with no ulterior motivation of fame, money, or other recognition, you may have briefly shared some holy space with the Holy One. If you have dedicated yourself, whether over an hour’s time or over a lifetime, to sincerely delving deep within your own soul to detect some element of eternity and ultimate purpose, it is just possible that you shared that time with the Eternal One. This, according to the midrash, was what God was aiming for in the grand plan of creation.
Unfortunately, things don’t always work out like that. God, in a sense, isn’t ‘there’ when we don’t sanctify the time and the space that we live in by letting God in. Of course, in some undetectable manner, God’s presence is everywhere – otherwise, all those spaces and times couldn’t really exist to begin with. But this undetectable presence was not God’s primal agenda. God structured things such that we and we alone, can clean out all the shmutz and prepare a world that is truly worthy of God’s presence. It really couldn’t be otherwise. If God were to allow His presence to invade our world, to dwell among us even though we weren’t worthy, we would never even realize it to begin with. God would be no different than a beautiful piece of artwork hanging in a dark basement, or an incredible piece of music performed to a noisy audience that isn’t interested in listening. Dwelling in the lower worlds doesn’t mean to just blend in with the wallpaper. It means to be at the core of our lives, the focal point of our existence, the sincerest and holiest of our desires.
Our deeds, our words, our very thoughts, are the vehicles through which God’s presence is detectable in our world. It may take an Abraham, an Isaac, or a Jacob to bring God down when He has been chased away by murder, idolatry, or wanton sexual practices. But that does not mean that each and every one of us does not have the ability to bring that presence inside when it is hovering just beyond the borders waiting for us to usher it in. We have remarkable spiritual potential. We have the power, the almost angelic power, to bring godliness into our own lives and into the lives of those around us. God wants this to happen. God intended this from the very beginning. In fact, this was nothing less than God’s very reason for creation – to create a being which could play that crucial and final role of bringing God into the world. That being is you and I. It is all of us, the human race. We can share our world with God. We can provide God with a home away from home.
What are we supposed to do about all this? For starters, how about recognizing our role in this entire process? We tend to diminish our own significance in the face of the cosmos, in comparison to the great scheme of things. This midrash tells us that such an attempt at false humility is nothing but an escape from our true responsibility. We are all terribly significant, so significant that we are that very bridge on which God travels to our world. Recognizing and acknowledging our own significance is the first step in treating our lives with the seriousness that they deserve. All too often we live under the illusion that nothing we do really matters anyway so we don’t trouble ourselves with matters of ultimate significance. We let ourselves slip into lives devoid of any attempt at spiritual or ethical growth. This is a form of spiritual suicide. We can and we must accomplish in the spiritual realm – it is the only way to bring God’s presence into the world.
On a more advanced level, we have to acclimate ourselves to think about God’s needs. This world and everything in it, including our own lives, is nothing less than a divine gift. But that gift comes with certain strings attached. God has godly needs and desires just as we have human needs and desires. Those needs must be treated with at least the same seriousness that we devote to our own needs. We are all too familiar with the depression and withdrawal that results from the frustration of not fulfilling our own desires. Difficult as it may seem, divine versions of these same feelings affect God. God has to withdraw into some divine realm that is devoid of all contact with the frustrations of unfulfilled needs. On a rather deep level, this is our task in life – to make God feel welcome. Every good deed we do, every encouraging word we say, every spiritual thought we generate brings God the joy of belonging among us. Sadly, the reverse is also true.
On a very down-to-earth level, there is a very simple way of putting this deep idea into practice. It boils down to just making the world into a better place. Imagine if you were a long-term guest in someone's house. Wouldn’t it be nice and even expected for the guests to clean the place up every once in a while or to find ways to go about making the place a little more pleasant to be in? The owner would probably find it pretty annoying if the guests didn’t take an active role in the upkeep of the house. The owner would probably be extremely peeved if the guests constantly trashed the place. This is precisely our situation in the world. We are long-term guests in God’s house. In fact, we are guests our entire lives. The owner would like to drop by now and again, but may find that the guests have made His own house an unwelcome place to be. Spending a little bit of time every single day trying to make the world just a tiny bit better would go a long way towards making God feel welcome. We are his guests after all.
Food for Thought
This midrash stresses God’s desire to dwell among us. If God truly wants this, why are we so resigned to living our lives with only the barest awareness of God’s presence? Why aren’t we constantly inspired to look for more?
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