There is an ironic saying, apocryphally attributed to Chinese culture, that you should be blessed to live in interesting times. Just turn on the news from around the globe, open the paper or scroll through your Facebook feed at any given moment to see the blessings now shaping our world — and that’s without stepping into the minefield of politics.
Interesting times, indeed.
Any novel in the towering stack on my night table can provide a fleeting sense of escape from the stress of it, transporting me out of my own head until I’m forced to close its pages. But if it’s spiritual inspiration I’m looking for, I turn to that Book of Books: the Torah. Every chapter and verse, each word and letter, even the tiniest dot of punctuation, is bursting with meaning, waiting for us to peel back the layers one at a time to reveal the treasures hidden inside. The bits of wisdom, the life lessons, the powerful messages — they are there for the taking, waiting to enrich the experience of being a Jew, and a person, here on earth.
Some of my favorite biblical gems are found in God’s detailed instructions to Moses for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in which we carried the Ten Commandments during our meanderings in the desert. In that discussion, God says, “And they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.”
Wait a second. God is omnipresent. Why does He need a place to dwell? And why “among them,” not “in it”?
Because — and this floors me every time I encounter it — God comes down to us, descending from on high into the physical realm, for the purpose of nurturing our relationship with Him. We meet in the holy space He commands us to build, a sanctuary wrought from the finest materials by highly skilled artisans. It is there we develop a sense of physical intimacy with Him, a heightened awareness that He is a constant presence in our lives wherever we are and wherever we go, despite the fact that we will never be able to see Him.
This has provided me no small measure of comfort as I’ve waded through the challenges so many of us face at one time or another in our lives — illness, loss, parenting crises, the trials of caring for aging relatives. It is at these moments, when I insist I cannot surmount the next stumbling block, that I sense the voice of God in my ear, reassuring me it will all work out, and that if it does not, He will be there to see me through to another morning. It also reaffirms my faith that peaceful, less interesting days lie ahead, just beyond the horizon.
Mostly, though, this distinct awareness of God’s presence reminds me of our obligation to one another. In this we model His acts of chesed, or kindness — from clothing Adam and Eve to comforting Abraham during his illness to burying Moses with dignity, and His many kindnesses in between. While tending to our families and communities, we must also remember that we are part of a much bigger world. And if we follow His lead in our everyday personal interactions, comporting ourselves with warmth, love and mutual respect, we can experience Him in a palpable way, despite His divine intangibility.
The design of the Mishkan itself bears this out. God makes Himself known between the two golden cherubim, usually defined as winged, angelic figures, positioned face-to-face above the ark. This powerful imagery demonstrates that in order to face God, we must first face one another with openness and honesty and the recognition of our common humanity. We must look beyond our daled amot, our personal space, because it is by acknowledging that we share the world with others — some just like us, many more not — that we can ultimately honor the God who created us all.
The Kotzker Rebbe once said that God dwells wherever we let Him in. At a time in history when we are, no doubt, living in interesting times, let’s let Him in wherever we can. There is so much at stake. It’s worth a shot.
Merri Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space and a columnist for New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.