The Particular Holiness of a Place
If God’s presence fills the whole world, why does it seem easier to connect to God in some places rather than others?
This paradox is central to understanding the concept of the mishkan, God’s dwelling place on earth. In Parashat Terumah, God declares:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם:
Make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.
God asks for a dwelling place on earth, in order to be close to Israel. In a midrash on this verse, Moshe is shocked by this request:
שמות רבה לד:א
בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה עשה לי משכן התחיל מתמיה (נ"א: ונבהל ונרתע לאחוריו) ואומר כבודו של הקדוש ברוך הוא מלא עליונים ותחתונים והוא אומר עשה לי משכן.
Shemot Rabbah 34:1
When the Holy Blessed One said to Moshe, “Make me a dwelling-place,” Moshe was surprised (other versions: was shocked and taken aback).1 Moshe said, “The Glory of the Holy Blessed One fills the upper and lower realms, and God says: ‘Make me a dwelling-place’?!”
Moshe understands that God’s presence fills the entire world. Indeed, God is called “המקום,” perhaps to indicate that God is more expansive than any particular place. As another midrash notes: “God is the place of the world, the world is not God’s place.”2 Given God’s omnipresence, it simply does not make sense to Moshe that God would need a particular dwelling-place on earth.
But God’s response in the midrash reorients our approach to this question:
אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא כשם שאתה סבור כך אני סבור אלא כ' קרש בצפון וכ' בדרום וח' במערב ולא עוד אלא שארד ואצמצם שכינתי בתוך אמה על אמה.
The Holy Blessed One said [to Moshe], “I do not think like you think. Rather: 20 planks in the north (of the mishkan), and 20 planks in the south, and 8 planks in the west (see Exodus 26:15-25).
“Not only that, but I will descend and limit My presence to fit within one square cubit.”
God clarifies to Moshe: we think differently about this issue. Even if you, Moshe, think it doesn’t make sense, I, God, will dwell within the confines of the structure of the mishkan. Going even further, God says that even one square cubit (presumably the space above the ark3) will contain God’s presence.
In other words: humans think that God transcends any particular space, but God is teaching something more nuanced about God’s own presence. According to God, it is possible for God to concentrate God’s presence in one place. To me, this explains the possibility of feeling God’s presence with particular intensity in a specific location. Indeed, one of the tragedies felt in the wake of the destruction of the Temple was that God’s presence on earth was diminished, and humans were unable to approach God in the same way as before.4
This tension about the location of God’s presence is given expression in one of our central prayers, the Kedushah.5 In the Musaf Amidah for Shabbat and festivals, we see the following question, asked by the angels:
כְּבודו מָלֵא עולָם. מְשָׁרְתָיו שׁואֲלִים זֶה לָזֶה אַיֵּה מְקום כְּבודו
God’s Glory fills the world. God’s servants (= angels) ask each other, “Where is the place of God’s presence?”
In the Kedushah, we imitate the angels praising God. In this liturgical moment, however, the angels are not praising; they are asking a question about the location of God’s presence.6 They do not know where God’s presence is to be found!
What happens next? While remaining uncertain (or ignorant) about God’s location, they praise God “from God’s place”:
בָּרוּךְ כְּבוד ה' מִמְּקומו
Blessed is the presence of God from [God’s] place.
This sentence is a quote from Ezekiel 3:12, part of the very intense vision the prophet has of God’s form.7 But in the context of the Kedushah, this is a response to the question of where God’s presence is to be found. As R. Yehudah bar Yakar explains, the angels’ answer is: we don’t know where God’s presence is to be found, but wherever God’s presence is, may God be blessed.8 In other words, the term ממקומו is intentionally non-specific.9
According to the Shabbat Musaf Kedushah, then, God’s place is not known – at least to the angels (whom we are imitating in this liturgical passage).10
But humans are not angels. God may not make known God’s presence to the angels, but God did reveal Godself to Israel. Our experience of God’s presence is explicitly contrasted with the angels’ in the following midrash:
שמות רבה כג:טו
החיות הנושאות את הכסא אינן מכירות את הדמות ובשעה שמגיע זמנן לומר שירה הן אומרים באיזה מקום הוא אין אנו יודעות אם כאן הוא אם במקום אחר הוא אלא בכל מקום שהוא ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו.
ועולי הים כל אחד ואחד מראה באצבעו ואומר "זה אלי ואנוהו"
Shemot Rabbah 23:1511
The heavenly beasts that carry the throne do not recognize the Image (of God). When their time comes to recite song (before God), they say: Where is [God]? We don’t know if [God] is here or in another place! But wherever [God] is, “Blessed is the presence of God from [God’s] place.”
But those [Israelites] who crossed the (Reed) Sea—each and every one of them pointed with their finger and said: “This is my God and I shall glorify [God]” (Exodus 15:2).
God’s angels (the hayyot) do not know where God is (perhaps because they are under the throne). They settle by simply stating: wherever God may be, we bless God. In contrast, at the crossing of the sea, the people of Israel saw God and knew exactly where God was. They were even able to point to God (indicated by the word זה – “this”).12 God does not hide from us, but reveals Godself to us.13 Indeed, as another midrash notes, this is an expression of God’s love for us. God loves us so much that God wants to be close to us, available to us:
קטעי מדרש והגדה, גנזי שכטר כרך א
ובשביל חבתן של ישראל אף אל פי שעליונים ותחתונים אינן מחזיקין כבודי אני מוריד כבודי ומשרא שכינתי בתוך המשכן
Kitei Midrash ve-Haggadah, Ginzei Schechter vol. 1, p. 219
For the love of Israel, even though the upper and lower realms cannot contain My presence, I will lower My presence and make My presence dwell within the mishkan.
In my life, I have felt God’s presence more intensely in certain places. Sometimes that is because of an event (the birthing room, for instance). But often it is simply a specific place in which I stand. Although theoretically God can be felt anywhere, and is indeed present in all places, there are places that carry a stronger spiritual valence for me, and make it easier for me to connect to God. For instance, I often experience God’s presence more intensely when I am near the open ark in synagogue. My heart still skips a beat when the doors open, and I feel in a heightened emotional state, connecting to the palpable presence of God. It is as if a direct channel is opened for me.14 And while this reflects my own experience of the place, not an empirical certainty about God’s presence, God allows for this possibility of intense connection, fueled by a specific space, to exist: For humans, God’s presence manifests in different levels of intensity at certain spaces.
This is the beauty of God’s relationship with us. We are not angels, who exist without knowing whether God is here or there. We are flesh and blood people who connect to real spaces. And while it may seem paradoxical to feel God more strongly in one place than in another, the midrashim we’ve seen imagine that God has never been bothered by this. We needn’t feel nervous, like Moshe, about limiting God to some smaller radius. According to God Godself, God’s presence is not actually limited when manifest in a particular place. Rather, it is a way for us to feel close to God, by giving us a way to more easily connect to God’s presence in a specific space. And this is why the paradox, creating a container for an omnipresent God, is actually no paradox at all, but a gift from God.
2 See Bereishit Rabbah 68:9, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 777: הוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו. See also Shemot Rabbah 45:6. Although note Urbach’s understanding of this name of God: “[Ha-Makom] refers to the God who reveals Himself in whatever place He wishes; this epithet thus expresses God’s nearness… it denoted the immanence of God…” E. E. Urbach, The Sages (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975), pp. 72, 75.
3 Commentators to this midrash disagree about what this one square cubit represents. Yefei Toar (R. Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi) says the measurement of one square cubit is not exact, but indicates the space above the ark; Maharip (R. Yehezkel Feivel) thinks this is the space above the tablets, which could total one square cubit..
6 The term כבוד is parallel to שכינה; both indicate God’s immanent presence. See Saadia Gaon, Emunot ve-Dei’ot, ed. Kafih, p. 103-104; Shalom Spiegel, Avot ha-Piyyut, ed. Menahem Schmelzer (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1997), p. 328.
7 For another understanding of the function of this line in Ezekiel itself, reading ברום instead of ברוך, see Shada”l on Ezekiel 3:12, and Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20: Anchor Bible Series (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 70-71.
9 Sefer Ha-Batim (David ben Shmuel haKokhavi) interprets this not as a physical location, but an attainment of intellect. We cannot fully know God, so we praise God to the extent we can with our limited capacity. See Tefillah Le-Moshe, ed. Aharon Lopiansky (New York: Eshel, 2016), vol. 2, p. 822. See also R. David Abudraham to Kedushah, ed. Torat Hayyim, p. 339.
10 Mahzor Vitry draws a distinction between our knowledge of God’s presence in Musaf as opposed to Shaharit. In Shaharit, God’s location is known (and indeed, that Kedushah is missing any back and forth around God’s location). But only in Musaf have the angels lost the ability to locate God. See Mahzor Vitry #163, ed. Horowitz, p. 155; ed. Goldschmidt, p. 280.
12 The Rabbinic understanding of the word זה indicates a specific object that people can point to. For more on the use of זה, see my upcoming essay for Hadar’s 5783 Pesah Reader, “The Redemptive Power of Pointing,” pp. 1-4 (forthcoming). You can order the reader here.
14 This is the legacy of the original sanctuary, according to Rav Huna: “Whoever prays the Amidah in a synagogue in this world, it is as if they prayed in the sanctuary (מקדש), as it says: ‘I will be for them a small sanctuary’ (Ezekiel 11:16).” Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim #659. Compare Bavli Megillah 29a. Midrash Mishlei 1:1, ed. Visotzky, p. 6, notes how when the ark was opened, those gathered “were filled by the light of the Shekhinah.” See further Steven Fine, This Holy Place (Indiana: Notre Dame, 1997), p. 76, 81.