What does it mean when the Torah states: “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” Exodus 29:45-46
These two verses say that the purpose of God’s actions to liberate the Jewish people, and instruct them to build the Tent of Meeting; were to meet a divine desire–a need for relationship. This concept was noticed by Jewish commentators throughout history.
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th Century) notes that these verses mean “the purpose of My bringing them forth from the land of Egypt was only that I might dwell in their midst.” Rabbi Moses ben Nahman,(13th Century) says this focus on God’s need (desire) is “a great secret”: (a Kabbalistic insight)
For in the rational sense of things it would appear that the dwelling of the Divine glory in Israel was only to fulfill a human need to be free; but this is not so. It also fulfilled a Divine desire. The Torah is telling us something fundamental about God. The God of Israel is a passionate God, a God who loves, cares, and gets involved.
God is not a First Cause or Prime Mover, which is itself unmoved. Unlike the notion of a perfect, unchanging God portrayed by so many philosophers, the Torah notion of God–while ultimately beyond human language or concept–is of one who responds to human needs and desires, and enjoys a relationship with humans; all humans.
That notion, of God desiring human love and human relationship, lies at the very core of Judaism through the ages. God’s passion and loneliness find expression and resolution only in the reciprocal love of human beings. Due to that need for love and commitment God first created the world and later made a brit (covenant) first with Noah and later with the Jewish people.
The one God’s love extends beyond the borders of the Jewish People; it began there and then spread to many other religious communities.
Choosing the Jewish People was an expression of God’s desire for emotional connection and for mutual concern. God’s love created the world. Our love for God sustains the world; and fills our lives and all religious communities with meaning.
In fact each of us has a deep-seated need to love and to be loved. It feels good to care about another person, to belong to a group of people who share a history, an ethos, and a vision for the future.
Our Torah teaches us that all humans are made in God’s image: just as we have been created with a drive to love and be loved, so our Creator, whose image we reflect, desires to give and receive love.
Over the millennia, the Jewish people have cultivated a loving relationship through deeds of holiness, acts of loving-kindness, and the ongoing study of Torah, the accumulated record of our relationship with God.
Israel is not the (only) chosen people. While Israel can’t adore any other God, God can and does redeem other nations. “Are not Israelites like Ethiopians to me? Says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Crete and the Aramaeans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)
Israel is a chosen people because at Sinai the Jewish people chose to be chosen, thus becoming the first to be a chosen people and a holy community. Others, who have individually chosen to be part of a kind and loving religious community, also have the Divine dwelling in their hearts.
But in our case, the covenant at Sinai involved an entire people. The principle that God made a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are good and faithful believers, helps us understand two powerful verses in the Qur’an which narrate that at Sinai, before Allah give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He made a covenant with them.
Allah raised the mountain (Sinai) above the whole Jewish people: “We took a covenant from you when We lifted the Mount (Sinai) over your heads saying, ‘Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it.’” (2:63). The whole nation’s future fate stood under the shadow of mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel choosing to agree to the covenant with the One God of Abraham.
This Jewish experience at Sinai is also referred to in the Oral Torah. When God offered all the newly freed slaves the Torah, a party of them hesitated. Most of our rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could hesitate when offered the opportunity to commit themselves to God.
But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by both small and large parts of the Jewish people. God’s proposal of a covenant partnership was the most awesome offer the recently freed slaves had ever received. If many people in the Western World today have a problem making a long term marriage commitment, what about people who had been slaves in Egypt only three months earlier.
Some of the Jewish People said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours and then decided to make a commitment. but a few remained undecided. A small minority were afraid to commit. So, would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of an endless commitment and partnership?
Fortunately, according to Rabbi Avdimi, God came to the rescue: “The Holy One, blessed be He, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a)
Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference in the other person’s answer and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant at Sinai; probably the only time in more than 3,500 years of Jewish history, that all Jews agreed on something.