“Drawing Close to G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, G-d instructs the people to make sacred garments for the priests to wear when performing the service in the Tabernacle. The parasha also includes a step-by-step protocol of the inauguration ceremony for the priests, and concludes with a description of the daily Tamid offering and the golden incense altar.

At the end of Exodus 29, G-d dramatically announces that He will meet the people of Israel in the Tabernacle that will be sanctified by His Divine Presence. Exodus 29:45 reads: “V’sha’chan’tee b’toch b’nay Yisrael, v’ha’yee’tee la’hem lay’lo’kim,” And I shall dwell among the children of Israel, and I shall be their G-d. The people will then acknowledge that the Lord is G-d, who took them out of the land of Egypt, to dwell in their midst.

If the above verse rings familiar, it is because it seems to be somewhat of a paraphrase of the verse that was enunciated in parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:7): “V’ah’soo lee mik’dash, v’sha’chan’tee b’toch’am,” informing the Israelites that G-d does not dwell in the Tabernacle per se, but rather in the midst of the Jewish people.

Upon careful review, the message of the aforementioned verse differs significantly from G-d’s statement in this week’s parasha. In parashat Tetzaveh, G-d says that He will dwell among the people of Israel and be their G-d, emphasizing that G-d’s presence among the people of Israel will be so overwhelming that they will perforce recognize Him as G-d.

Rabbi Henoch of Alexander (1798-1870, second Gerer Rebbe, cited in Otzar HaTorah (The Torah Treasury of Artscroll) is quoted as having said:

I spent many years in the presence of someone whom people consider a great man. The closer I got to him, the less I felt connected to him. He simply shrunk in my eyes. Once I met the Kotzker Rebbe, however it was just the opposite–the longer I stayed with him and the more I observed him, the deeper my respect and reverence for him became.

Drawing nigh or coming close to any individual can be a perilous experience. The well-known adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is too often true. That is why family members at times speak to one another employing language that they would never dare use with others, or in public. Siblings are not only known for their “rivalries,” but all too often for their outright contempt for each other. Love and hate are frequently the opposite sides of the same coin, and marriages that were once presumed to be predicated on profound love, turn into battlefields of irrational resentment.

It is not unusual for people to distance themselves from acquaintances and friends because they in no way want to wind up entangled in the messy affairs of others. This distancing is at times due to the fact that they fear that their involvement will somehow reveal their own blemishes. Photography studios today have been raking in record profits touching-up blemishes on old photos, and photographers are often sternly warned not to come too close. We have become, in reality, a society that goes to great lengths to hide our blemishes, our shortcomings, and our failings. Any action that may be seen by others as weakness is thought to be humiliating, since it may prove to all that we are indeed less than “perfect.”

And yet, in Exodus 29:45, G-d tells us that the closer He gets to the Jewish people, the more the people will embrace Him. In contrast to the human experience, G-d’s imminence will only enhance His grandeur and the people’s recognition of His perfection, His kindness and His love.

Unfortunately, many people today are reluctant to draw close to G-d. Religion, in contemporary society, is commonly characterized as creating dependence, and frequently denounced as inhibiting, allowing little or no personal discretion. Many see religious practices as oppressively burdensome, and fear that religious observance will result in a loss of independence.

The truth about religion, however, is quite the opposite. Many adherents actually find religion in fact liberating, strongly encouraging independent thinking and action. Religion often gives individuals the strength not to be unduly swayed by the popular movements of the day. Instead, each person is guided by their own inner sense of what is correct and moral.

It is certainly true that religion can become a crutch and may be used by some in unhealthy ways. However, the Jewish religion is in no way a crutch. It is in fact a handbook–a guide that maps out the journey for a spiritually fulfilling way of life. Religion has the ability to endow individuals with the strength to pick themselves up when they stumble, and to hold their heads up when they are tired and ashamed. It helps each person be true to one’s family, one’s people and one’s land in the face of the frequent pernicious influences of society that challenge our loyalties to those people, places, things, and ideas that are most dear to us.

The tragedy of contemporary society is that religion is often regarded as gauche, hence G-d is not very popular in certain circles. As a result, many people don’t allow themselves to be drawn close to G-d. And yet, those who do allow themselves to be exposed to the positive experiences of religion and religious observance find themselves deeply enriched.

G-d can be our King. G-d can be our Deity. But we need to allow Him to dwell among us. If we fail to do so, we will have impoverished our lives and impoverished our world, perhaps irretrievably.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion about remembering Amalek is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. It is considered by most authorities to be a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.