Todd Berman

Where can God be found?

For some, Purim is the ideal holiday. Keeping the mitzvot is easy. Who doesn’t love Eating and drinking at a festive meal? We love our community, so sending gifts to friends and relatives is no sweat. We care about others, and so giving money or food to the poor to enable them to keep the festivities is also a no-brainer. Attending synagogue and listening to the Megillah is not hard, and as a bonus, the Megillah doesn’t even mention God—no need to get into all that Jewish theology stuff.

So why isn’t God mentioned in the book of Esther? The Talmud suggests that a hint of God’s absence appears in Deuteronomy. In Parashat VaYelech, Moses proclaims that when the Jews abandon God and search out other gods, “I will surely Hide my face on that day.” (Deut. 31:18) The Hebrew of the verse, “VeAnochi Haster Astir Panai BaYom HaHu,” is a pun on the word Esther. “Astir” means to hide and sounds like “Esther” in Hebrew. (Talmud Chulin 139b) So as a punishment for abandoning God, the divine will hides, allowing the calamity to befall the Jewish people.

I think, however, another verse can also unmask the reason for God’s hiding. In this week’s Parasha, Terumah, God commands Moses to weave a screen, called the Parokeht, to separate the holy courtyard of the Tabernacle from the Holy of Holies. God’s presence, known as the Shekhina in rabbinic writings, resides within the inner sanctum between the cherubs on top of the Holy Ark. But why does God dwell, as it were, hidden away, shielded by the Parokhet?

The Talmud suggests that God’s presence overwhelms the people. In a famous interpretation, the rabbis tell that the theophany at Mt. Sinai, the sound and light show when God gave Moses the Torah, removed the people’s free will. In the rabbis’ words, God held the mountain over the heads of the Jews and forced them to accept the law. From here, they deduce that the contract was not fully binding. In Jewish law, a forced contract loses its validity. Here is where the story gets interesting. The rabbis ask when the Torah’s laws gained authority – when could the people accept the law of their own volition? The rabbis suggest that the people re-accepted the covenant on Purim when God concealed His face (BT Shabbat 88a.) Experiencing the miracle without seeing God enhanced the experience.

Synagogues customarily recite a Psalm called a Song for the Morning Star (or morning Doe) on Purim. The rabbis compare the story of Esther to the star at dawn. Just as the morning star announces the end of the night, so Esther represents the last biblical miracle. (BT Yoma 29a)  Here the psalmist laments, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalms 22:2) Just like the Persian Jews under threat of destruction, the psalmist declares that God hides from view. After the wonderous victory, the Jews recognized God in his hiddenness and accepted the rules in the Torah. (BT Shabbat 68b)

But there is more to the story. God hides so only those searching can find Him. God, seemingly, does not want a unidirectional relationship where the Divine overshadows humanity. He wants man to search for Him.

The idea of God hiding and wanting us to find Him is even more evident when we return to the Parokhet, which hides the inner part of the Tabernacle from view.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), known by the acronym Netziv, in his commentary HaAmek Davar wonders about the rabbinic understanding of Moses. According to the rabbis, Moses had the right to enter the Holy of Holies anytime. His brother, Aharon, the High Priest, could only enter when summoned. So Moses could always go beyond the Parohket (Torat Kohanim Acharei Mot.) However, this is impossible. The Torah tells us that upon completion of the Tabernacle, the Divine presence rested in a cloud. This cloud prevented Moses from entering. (Ex. 40:35). So how can the rabbis claim Moses could always go beyond the Parokhet if the Torah says he could not go where the cloud of God’s glory rested?

Netziv points out an oddity of the Ark and the Tabernacle / Temple architecture to solve this riddle. The Levites needed poles to carry the various pieces of furniture like the Menorah and the gold altar. Unlike all the other furnishings of the Tabernacle, the poles used to carry the Ark remained inserted in the Ark. Even when resting inside the Holy of Holies, the poles remained. According to the rabbis in the Talmud, the poles slightly protruded from the Holy of Holies and pushed the Parokhet outwards. A gap remained between the holiest part of the Tabernacle/Temple and the Holy of Holies. The Netziv suggests that God’s glory, the Shekhina, permeated up to the end of the border of the Holy of Holies and no further. The gap created by the poles was large enough that Moses could stand between the poles inside the Parokhet (see Ex. 25:26, HaAmek Davar ad loc, and BT Menachot 98a-b.) So Moses could slip in between the curtain and the Ark in such a way that he could not be seen from the outside but could be in God’s presence without coming too close.

How would this look to those outside the Temple looking into the Holy area? While the curtain concealed Moses, two points protruded from the curtain. The length of the poles created the two points. The onlookers can’t see the Divine presence but know that Moses stood in the gap near the Divine glory. They learned that God is approachable even in hiddenness. After the hidden miracle of Purim, the Jews realized they could find God if they searched. Indeed, God hid in the Holy of Holies and from the world so that we could search for him on our terms. But we can only find Him if we open our hearts to look.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan relates a famous story of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1789 – 1859.) “[The Kotzker] was five years old when he asked his father, ‘Where is God?’ His father answered, ‘God is everywhere!’ He replied, ‘No, I think God is only where you let him in.'” (Innerspace p. 160)

Hiding, God opens Himself up to our finding him. But we have to search.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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