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How Does Moses Conceive of the Divine: Transcendent or Immanent?

Moshe Rabenu’s Conception of God is revealed in this week’s Torah portion: Pequdei.

Prof. Moshe Benovitz explores Moses’ and our need for a transcendent or immanent Divine presence. 

This week we read the last parashah in the book of Exodus, Pequdei.

Six weeks ago we read that Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s instruction for forty days and forty nights. Since then the weekly portions have dealt primarily with the construction of the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting. On Mount Sinai God gives Moses detailed instructions about how to construct the tent, and repeatedly tells Moses that he will dwell amidst the Israelites in that tent, veshakhanti betokham, and meet with Moses in this place of dwelling, veno’adeti lekha sham, to continue the discussions begun on Mount Sinai. The two names given the tent, Mishkan, literally “Dwelling”, and Ohel Moed, “Tent of Meeting,” reflect these two ideas: God dwells in the tent, and God meets with Moses in the tent, speaking to him from the lid of the ark from between the two cherubim.

This week’s parashah describes the actual construction of the tent in great detail. In the very last verses of this week’s parashah and the book of Exodus as a whole, Moses erects the tent and furnishes it, and God actually “moves in:” “Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:33-34).

All this is as expected. Everything worked out as planned. But the following verse, Moses’s reaction, is nothing less than shocking.

Rather than entering the cloud and the Tabernacle to meet with the Lord as planned, we read: “And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (40: 35).

Moses just couldn’t bring himself to enter the tabernacle when God was there, despite the fact that this was the whole point of the Tent of Meeting!

This is especially surprising since Moses had already walked into a cloud in order to meet with God. That’s exactly what happened on Mount Sinai: “And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it … And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:16-18).

I would like to suggest that Moses was comfortable with the idea of a transcendent God, dwelling way above the people, on a cloud at the peak of Mount Sinai. He had no trouble walking into the heavenly cloud up there. But he was petrified when forced to encounter God down here on earth, right here in our midst. It took a while for him to get used to the idea, even though God had explained to him that that is exactly what was going to happen.

We, too, seem to be more comfortable with the idea of a transcendent God than an immanent God.

We tend to think that God is in heaven, not under the ground and in every leaf and every blade of grass and every breath we take. Some people think that a transcendent God is easier to believe in because we don’t see God down here. But in this day and age most people believe in God as intangible Spirit in any case. Why should that spirit be up in heaven? Why shouldn’t it permeate all of existence?

I think Moses and other people who have trouble accepting that God is right here with us desperately want and need to believe that God is both good and all-powerful. That is why they think God simply cannot be here with us. Our parents and grandparents asked: If God is right here, how can he have allowed the Holocaust to happen? We ask: If God is here, how can he allow the Hamas atrocities and the endless war, the suffering of the wounded and the hostages and their parents, and the families of fallen soldiers and civilians? How can he allow the world to “respond” to these atrocities with rampant anti-Semitism? That is why it was and still is easier to believe that God is far away in heaven. He is less relevant in that case.

If he’s right here, and all powerful, then he is responsible for good and evil.

But to my mind, the only conception of God that makes sense is that of an all-powerful Presence that fills the universe. God is the force that wills into existence all of nature and all of history – the good and the bad. He is here with us, and responsible along with us, for good and bad, life and death, happiness and suffering. God is called Yud He Vav He, from the Hebrew root hayah, “to be.” God is the author of existence and the basis of existence. He is what he is and he will be what he will be, as he said to Moses at their first encounter at the burning bush.

As the book of Isaiah tells us, he is the creator of light and darkness, maker of peace and creator of evil. And, while God’s Torah demands moral behavior from people, God himself is not bound by these strictures. He is by definition good and bad and beyond good and evil, moral and immoral and amoral, because he is the force behind all that exists. But God is also the ground of all meaning and all that is meaningful, and our lives are meaningless without him, despite evil. As Job said to his wife, “Shall we accept the good from the hand of God, and not accept the bad?”

May we have the courage to enter God’s cloud, and learn to love him and accept our existence in his presence throughout the ups and downs of the short lives that he grants us.



(image: God de Vader en Mozes op de berg Sinaï, P.J. Paerts, Rijksmusuem, Wikicommons)

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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