The search for God, His place in our lives and His place in the world are not new questions. This quest is to be found in the Torah, the Prophets and among the Sages. In fact, any serious study of Scripture will find the struggle to answer these questions debated in its very words. Is God in this world or in the Heavens? Is He omni-present or confined to a particular place? Is God’s presence infinite in an all-pervasive way or is it infinite as in a point?
For the Torah, this question was relevant in the making the Tabernacle in the desert and was equally significant for King Solomon when building the Temple in Jerusalem. Can human beings build a structure which will contain God? This week’s Torah reading states explicitly that “the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:37) Solomon, on the other hand, ponders, in his dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, whether it is possible to build a House (the Temple) to contain God: “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built.’ (1 Kings 8:27)
This “big question” looms large in the human quest to understand God’s nature and His relationship with the world. The above verses serve as fodder for a debate on this issue and one particular rabbinic resolution to this question: “It is written: But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built.’ (1 Kings 8:27); while here it is written: ‘the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle’ (Exodus 40:37) Said Rabbi Yehoshua from Sikhnin in the name of Rabbi Levi: ‘To what can this be likened? To an open cave on the shore of the sea; the sea rushes forth and fills the cave but the sea lacks nothing. So too, when Scripture wrote: ‘the Glory of God filled the Tabernacle, neither the upper world nor the lower world lacked from the light of the Glory of the Holy One Blessed be He.” (Pesikta Rabbati 8, Ish Shalom ed. pp. 19-20)
This midrash expresses a profound awareness of the contradiction between a deity housed in a particular place and one who is omni-present. It resolves this conflict with a parable which asserts that it possible for both of these seemingly contradictory descriptions to be true. Without getting into whether this analogy indeed works, I think the theological exercise expressed in this midrash is what is really important. Sometimes things that seem contradictory from one perspective are not at odds when looked at a different way. This is a valuable lesson not just to answer theological questions. It is a valuable life lesson.
Theology is a search for answers and meaning to ultimate questions which may not have wholly satisfactory answers from a human perspective. Nevertheless, the search for answers to these questions is significant because they add meaning to our lives and our quests for faith. Moreover, these questions and our search for answers are part of an ongoing process, especially in the Jewish tradition, where we are ever striving to learn more and to evaluate the meaning of life and how we can better serve God and better the world He has created.