Sermon: Where Does God Dwell?

Temple B’nai Chaim

January 31, 2014
Rabbi David Lipper

Soon after the revelation of the Ten Commandments, God told the Israelites to make a portable desert sanctuary and to bring voluntary gifts for its construction. Our sages query as do we. Does God really need a physical abode? Does God truly dwell in any finite space? Is God in need of gifts?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is no. God is real but invisible, beyond the needs of finite creatures possessing physical shape and form. There is a Jewish legend in which the people say to God, “Shouldn’t you, our king, have a palace like all other kings? To which God replies, “My children, I have no need for such a place.”

King Solomon, the builder of the first great Temple in Jerusalem proclaimed, “Behold the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built.” When the great Rabbi Yitchak Mayer was just a little boy, someone said to him, “I’ll give you a coin if you can tell me where God lives.” To which the future great Rabbi replied, “I’ll give you two coins if you tell me where God doesn’t!”

God is truly everywhere. God has no needs like ours. Why, then, does God tell Moses to build a sanctuary? God wants it, not to fill a divine need, but to fill a human need. Many people today have trouble feeling God’s presence in our lives or perceiving God’s hand in the world. That is really nothing new. Our ancestors had the same problem. But at Mount Sinai, it was different. There, the Israelites strongly felt God’s presence; they experienced God’s reality up close. They clearly heard God’s voice. Yet, God knew only too well that the Israelites could not stay at Mount Sinai forever. They had to move on to the land of Israel. Inevitably, their supreme religious experience would grow hazy. The people would begin to question themselves; had they truly encountered God? Was it only an illusion? Why couldn’t they feel God’s presence as strongly as they had before?

God commanded the Israelites to build the desert sanctuary so that the people would have a physical, tangible reminder of Mount Sinai and all that they had experienced there. A house of God must replicate the Mount Sinai experience. It must be a place where people can feel closer to God than anywhere else. A house of God must be a place where God and humanity meet and encounter each other.

But if God does not live in houses of God, how does God get there? In her magnificent book, “The Color Purple,” author Alice Walker has one of its characters say,” . . . Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”

The Torah agrees with Alice Walker. God does not dwell in the buildings, but in the hearts and minds of people. When we come to synagogue, it is we who bring God’s presence with us. Mark the words of Exodus 25:8 “veasu li mikdash ve shachanti betocham.” “Let them make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” It doesn’t say dwell “in it,” that is the “sanctuary,” but rather “in them.”

The purpose of a house of God is to so inspire and motivate people to let God live inside of them. The great 19th century Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibush Ben Yehiel (Malbim) put it, “God commanded that each person should build a sanctuary within his own heart for God to dwell therein.” What does it mean to build a Temple within? How do we make ourselves into better “dwelling places” for God?

We begin by looking for God in the right place. The prophet Elijah did not find God’s presence in nature. It was not in the majestic thunder or in the terrible lightning. Elijah found God in Kol Demama Daka – the still, small voice – the voice of conscience – the voice of God within. Do not always look to the highest heavens to find God. Rather, let us look deeply within ourselves, to the deepest recesses of our souls and listen there for God’s voice.   The poet, Denise Levertov, writes, “Something is very gently, invisibly, silently pulling at me . . . a stirring of wonder makes me catch my breath when I feel its embrace, even when I thought it had loosened and gone.”

We need to open ourselves up to the possibility of faith, to the possibility of the reality of God’s existence. Rabbi Stanley Chyet writes about God, “I can’t be sure any of this will mean much to You. I can’t even be sure that You exist as more than a figment of my own mysterious psyche. It’s a risk to open up to You. Who knows? I may be branding myself a terrible fool, but what’s not a risk? What’s guaranteed to be foolproof? So here I am again, praying for some modest bravery so that I can go on saying to You, here I am again.”

God is no less real for being invisible, no less real for not being a person. Indeed, the most important things in life are things we can neither see not touch. Can you see “Love”? No. Can you touch “Love”? No. But love is more real than almost anything else we know. And how do we know it? We know it not because we see it, but because we feel it.

We need to recapture our sense of awe and wonder, and most especially, our sense of gratitude. For, in truth, we walk sightless among miracles. Comatose individuals do suddenly wake up, terminal cancer patients do go into remission, and people do walk away from horrific car accidents without even a scratch. Wonderful things occur which are completely inexplicable to scientific knowledge or the rational mind.

Our sense of the living God will not come to most of us in some sort of blinding revelation. Rather, we feel God’s presence through warm and loving human relationships. My colleague, Rabbi Norman Mirsky, once observed, “God . . . comes to most of us when we are lonely, afraid or wounded . . . God is in the hurting, in the laughing, with other human beings.” To which I would only add that God is also there when we are filled with love, gratitude, awe or hope — and especially the love. Love is the way to God. Love is the way of God. At the end of our stay on Earth, all that really matters is how well did we love? What was the quality of our love?

The disciples of Rabbi Menachem Mendel, one of the great Rabbis of the 18th century, once asked him, “Where does God dwell?” After careful consideration, the Rabbi replied, “God will dwell . . . wherever we let God in.”

We must make a sanctuary within — a special safe place inside — for the life of the spirit for prayer and meditation, for relationship and communion with the Master of the universe. If we want to feel God’s presence then we’ve got to make room for God to come in — to come into our lives, into our souls, and especially into our hearts.