an antique drawing of a great cloud hovering over the mishkan with israelites worshipping
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness" from the 1890 Holman Bible

Our God is unfathomable. So where does that leave us?

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Exodus 25:1-27:19

At this point in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites have been liberated from slavery in Egypt, have experienced the awe-inspiring theophany of God at Mount Sinai and have been introduced to the Holiness Code, a collection of moral and religious laws by which they are to live.

In Terumah, they turn to the collective construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in which the Holy of Holies will be housed.

For the 19th-century German Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, the building of the Mishkan represents the high point, even the goal and pinnacle, of the Torah. While in Egyptian bondage, the Israelites toiled to make buildings for the pharaohs; now they are graced with the ability to devote their energy and labor to glorifying God’s presence among them.

The Mishkan is the concrete expression of our ancestors’ freedom. As God made the world, now Israel “makes” the Tabernacle in a new, loving and sacred act of creation.

And the Israelites will carry the Mishkan with them for the next 40 years.

The Tabernacle contains within it a variety of sacred objects and vessels, but the most sacred of them all is the Kodesh Kadoshim, the Holy of Holies. This represents not only the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments within it, but the actual dwelling place of God.

In this way, God literally travels with the people of Israel, from camp to camp, as they journey through the Sinai wilderness over the next four decades.

While it may seem alien to many of us today, the idea of God being present in or on something tangible is not new in the Torah. God is revealed to Abraham through a smoking oven and a flaming torch. God speaks to Moses from within a burning bush. God becomes manifest to the Israelites on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke.

Other ancient religions also believed that their deity (or deities) could reside in places or on objects, such as mountains, storms, temples, altars and statues. Yet this idea became less relevant and compelling for Jews by the rabbinic period, roughly two millennia ago, following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.

For the rabbis, the notion of God residing in a specific location or space was anathema to their belief system. They believed that God was omnipresent: The Holy One could be found everywhere, in all things, and within all of us.

This has been a core Jewish belief for the past 2,000 years.

Still, human beings need visible, tangible symbols of God’s presence in our lives. Having a relationship with an invisible, transcendent, ungraspable reality — God — is not easy. Maimonides recognized this psychological necessity in the 12th century, and he wrote about it in “The Guide for the Perplexed.”

While they exist in a less overt way than in the biblical period, Jews today continue to cling to these symbols. One is the ner tamid, the eternal light that is present in most synagogues and that remains illuminated whether or not anyone is in the building.

Do we really believe that God “lives” in these lights? Probably not. But many of us find them reassuring and spiritually meaningful.

The God of modern Judaism takes no material form. Our God is unfathomable, unnamable and fundamentally mysterious. So how do we pray to a mystery? How can we follow the will of a God that we can’t see, touch or truly ever know?

This is a question that has perplexed me for many years. But I take a measure of comfort in knowing that I am not alone in asking it.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."