Does Gd Need Us?
With your indulgence, I’d like to wax philosophical today. Let me begin by asking you, does Gd need us? Of course we need Gd. Without Gd’s input—even for a second—the world would cease to exist. But does Gd need us?
Let me approach this from the perspective of today’s Torah portion that continues the instructions for building the Mishkan—the portable Tabernacle used by the Jewish people in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. It includes a lengthy description of the sacred garments of the Kohanim, the priests, and at the end of the parsha the Torah (Ex. 29:43) explains Gd’s purpose for the Mishkan: V’no-ad’ti shama livney Yisrael, v’nikdash bichvodi, “There I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence [Rashi].”
The Sages disagree as to what this means—i.e. what is the real purpose of the Mishkan. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, teaches that the building of the Mishkan was Gd’s response to the sin of the Golden Calf. In other words, the Mishkan was not originally part of Gd’s plan for the Jewish people. But the sin of the Golden Calf demonstrated their inability to relate to Gd directly and their need for an intermediary. When Moses, who functioned as their intermediary, didn’t come down off Mt. Sinai when expected, they created another intermediary—the Golden Calf—to help them relate to Gd. The Mishkan, with its offerings, rituals and prayer, unlike the Golden Calf, would better serve that function.
The only problem with this approach is that the commandment to build the Mishkan was given in last week’s parsha and the sin of the Golden Calf doesn’t happen until next week’s. Commentators like the Ramban, Nachmonides, insist that the Torah follows chronological order and so they reject the idea that the Mishkan was in any way an afterthought. On the contrary, the Mishkan, with its symbols, rituals and offerings—like all the commandments—the Ramban maintains, were always part of Gd’s plan to help the Jewish people draw closer to Him.
However, there is a passage just 3 verses later (29:46) that seems to stand this approach on its head. It reads: V’yad’u ki Ani Hashem Elokeychem, asher hotzeyti otam mey-eretz Mitzrayim l’shochni v’tocham, “They shall know that I am Hashem their Gd, Who took them out of the land of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” What is this remarkable verse telling us? Listen again; see if you can hear it: Hotzeyti otam mey-eretz Mitzrayim l’shochni v’tocham, “I took them out of land of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” If you listen carefully to the verse it seems that the purpose of Gd’s taking us out of Egypt and to build the Mishkan were to meet Gd’s need “to dwell among us”—a need for relationship.
I know, philosophically, it makes no sense to speak of Gd as having needs. Gd is not like humans in that there is nothing that He needs. But Gd can have wants and desires. So let’s rephrase it: Gd took us out of Egypt and gave us the Torah with its commandment to build a Sanctuary because he desired to dwell among us. He wanted a close relationship with us.
Let’s go a little deeper. Kabbalah, as I have mentioned to you many times, teaches that Gd created the world in order to have an opportunity to display His goodness. That is only possible within a loving relationship where there will be someone to appreciate Gd’s goodness. And so Gd created man in His image—a being as close to Gd as possible—in order to have a loving relationship with someone who would appreciate Him.
With this in mind, the Ramban goes even further: “Gd dwells among us not merely for our benefit, but for His.” And this, the Ramban adds, is “a great secret.”
In the Haftorah, we can almost sense the sadness of Gd—if we can use a human emotion to describe Gd—as he tells the people through the prophet Ezekiel that Gd has withdrawn His Shechina, His Presence, from the Holy Temple because of their sins. But although His relationship with the Jewish people was weakened by the withdrawal of the Shechina and the subsequent destruction of the Temple, Gd reassures them that He still desires a relationship with them, and so He tells them through the prophet, that He will be with them in their upcoming exile.
In the plain sense of things it appears that the dwelling of the Shechina, Gd’s Presence, in the Mishkan and Temple was to fulfill a need below—for us to come closer to Gd. More deeply, we now can see it fulfilled a want, a desire above—for Gd to dwell among us. The Torah, according to this understanding, is telling us something fundamental about Gd. The Gd of Israel is a passionate Gd—a Gd who loves, cares, and gets involved. This is very different from the philosophical notions of Gd as the Prime Mover which is itself unmoved, or the First Cause which is beyond causation. Unlike the notion of an unchanging Gd portrayed by the philosophers, the Jewish notion of Gd is One Who responds to human needs and Who desires a relationship with each one of us.
Gd’s passion for relationship is a reflection of His love. Gd created the world—whether it was with a Big Bang or otherwise—with His loving energy. Gd’s passion finds expression and resolution only when we reciprocate Gd’s love.
After the disappointments in His relationships with Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Noah and his children, Gd decided to single out one family—the children of Abraham—with a Brit—a covenant to be a special object of Gd’s love so that they could demonstrate to all mankind how to have a relationship with Him. It was Gd’s love which created the world. It is our love for Gd which sustains it and fills our lives with meaning.
We can see it in the fact that the world is a place where life can flourish, where people are able to live and thrive, cultivate their families, their interests and their talents. It is also found in how we reflect Gd’s image in that each of us has a deep-seated need to love and to be loved. It feels good to do acts of holiness—expressing our love of Gd. It feels good to do acts of chesed—expressing our love of others—as we extend ourselves to help those in need. With both acts of holiness and chesed we reciprocate and show our love for Gd. The next step is ours.
Does Gd need us? In a sense we might say that He needs us. He gives us wealth and talent, for example, and expects us to use them to better the world. If we don’t, He will find a way, however, to accomplish His goals. But Gd forbid we should put ourselves in a position where we are of no use to Gd.
In the end we must say that Gd doesn’t need us. But He does desire us. He showers us with love and gifts. The question is: How will you show your love for Gd? Gd the Lover—with a capital “L”—awaits. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis