Imminence or Transcendence: Finding the Balance

         As we continue to read about the Mishkan, I ponder the divide between transcendence and imminence. God said in Parshat Terumah ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.”[1] The medieval rabbis view this as God’s Shechinah, the feminine, most earthly part of God, will come to dwell in the Mishkan.[2] Later commentators, however, take a different stance: that each of us should take engage in an active process of making God manifest in us-that the goal is to experience the Divine residing within oneself.[3] The medieval view, exemplified by Sforno, is of a transcendent God who descends from on high to dwell in the Mishkan. The later view, exemplified by Malbim, is of an imminent God who resides within us, and our job is to bring out God through our actions in this world. This includes physical actions (those who describe our body as a temple), spiritual actions (actively conversing with God through prayer and study) and relational actions (deeds of lovingkindness for those who need our help).

         The modern view, largely influenced by the mystics, of bringing out the Divine from within us rather than seeking God out from the external, is one with which I resonate. However, the truth is one must find a balance between the two. At the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh, Aaron and his sons can find God through the imminent act of beating olives to consecrate them for the Menorah, as well as through the transcendent act of taking a step back and reveling in the bright lights of the Menorah immediately following its lighting.

         Rabbi Shai Held writes about the need for balance between imminence and transcendence in his book The Heart of Torah. He states, “Wherever the Israelites go, God will go with them. But as inspiring as having God close by can be, it is also fraught with peril. If a sense of God’s immanence is not amply balanced with robust awareness of God’s transcendence, we run the risk of thinking we can domesticate God. We run the risk of thinking we can truly know who God is, or worse, we come to think that we can simply get God to do our bidding. Under such circumstances religion becomes about God serving us rather than us serving God. Faith very quickly descends into idolatry.”[4]

         The balance between imminence and transcendence is essential, and it is fitting to speak about it today when Ellen Gall chants her first Haftarah in a long time, tutored by Hagit Simkovic. Ellen is someone who demonstrates the importance of transcendence. She is at our daily minyan every day, praying to God. Joe and she have a beautiful backyard filled with the most gorgeous palm trees and plants, expressing the wonder of nature and the great gifts of the one above who gave them to us. At the same time, she understands the role of an imminent God in her everyday actions. Through Caring Kehilla she reaches out to congregants in need, seeing what can be done to help them. By chairing our congregational Torah Fund campaign, she helps ensure that Bet Shira congregants help students at Conservative institutions who need financial assistance. Ellen always made sure we had lunch on Yom Tov, and she has provided a Kiddush this morning in honor of this simcha She exemplifies holding the balance between God up high and God in our hearts, ready to help those in need through the performance of Mitzvot. Mazal Tov Ellen! May your joy increase each and every day as you shine God’s presence on everyone you touch.


[1] Exodus 25:8

[2] See Sforno on Exodus 25:8

[3] See Malbim on Exodus 25:8

[4] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah (JPS, The University of Nebraska Press, 2017), pg. 196.

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