The portion this week and its companion in Ezekiel are full of the details of constructing, furnishing, and operating the Temple. We know that these verses, fundamentally, relate to God’s calling us to “draw near,” to live in God’s presence.
Yet, as vital as doing so is to people of faith, these ancient verses may seem inaccessible to the modern reader, especially since the physical Temple no longer stands.
So, where do we go for help? I would suggest that the Psalms, one of the greatest poetic sources for a profound understanding of God’s presence, is a perfect place. Let’s give it a try.
A nice nexus with our text this week is Psalm 48. It asks us to think back on the Temple, setting our minds “to its ramparts” and “its bastions,” and commit to recounting of the Temple “to the last generation.”
What does the psalmist say we should associate most with this memory? “We witnessed, O God, Your kindness in the midst of Your Temple.” We know, too, that God’s Name extends “to the ends of the earth,” along with praise, because “with justice Your right hand is full.” In essence, it is in God’s presence that we learn of, and are guided to emulate, the Divine virtues of kindness and justice.
The psalmist, also, sees that within this presence the Divine will lead us forever. Some translate this as: “God will lead us even beyond death.”
We see these ideas extended in Psalm 62. “Only in God is my being quiet. From Him is my rescue.” There is both a deep tranquility and a sense of salvation that comes from living in God’s presence.
After all the temptations of following scoundrels who seem to succeed or, alternatively, to live purely by resisting them, the psalmist in Psalm 73 comes to realize that it was all futile “until I came to the sanctuaries of God.” There God “grasps me by the right hand” and “guides me with Divine counsel.” Wherever I am, while I “recount the Divine works,” “God’s closeness is good to me.”
In light of this psalm, we might recall that one of God’s names is HaMakom, the Place. This name suggests that God can be understood as the One-Who-Can-Always-Be-Present. So, now that the Temple no longer stands, we have the confidence that we can still experience God’s presence in our world. As Rabbi Soloveitchik taught from the Talmud: The world is not the place of God, but God is the Place of the world.
Indeed, our tradition teaches that that Place may be very near, corresponding to our souls, through our spirit, informing what we think and do. The still small voice hovers and is available to be heard at all times.
We conclude by reflecting on the very powerful Psalms 23 and 1. What might we distill from these two Psalms?
God shepherds us on the pathways of righteousness. We learn and follow God’s teaching. And, in so doing, we are blessed with lying down in grass meadows and being guided by tranquil waters.
Life brings us into the fears and pains of dark valleys, and even the darkness of death. But, as long as we remain in God’s presence, we fear no harm, whatever harm falls our way. Somehow knowing that we have a duty to serve like priests provides comfort and the feeling that we, too, are anointed. Goodness and kindness pursue us (even in the dark valleys), and we dwell in the House of the Lord for the length of our days.
The Psalms help us understand the deeper intentions of the ancient Temple. While the structure no longer stands, the Place does. And our living in God’s presence is still very much our duty as well as the source of our richest blessings.