How does a great G-d reside in a small temple?

How does a great G-d reside in a small temple?

The very fact that G-d chose us as the object of His commandments is infinitely more significant than anything our finite efforts might achieve. Does this mean that whether we do them or not is basically irrelevant?

For more than eight centuries,[1] there stood an edifice upon a Jerusalem hilltop which served as the point of contact between heaven and earth — as the physical expression of G-d’s all-pervading reality. So central was this edifice to the relationship between man and G-d that nearly two thirds of the mitzvot (divine commandments of the Torah) relate to it; its destruction is mourned as the greatest tragedy of our history, and its rebuilding will mark the ultimate redemption — the restoration of harmony within G-d’s creation and between G-d and His creation.

This edifice is commonly referred to by our sages as Beit Hamikdash — “the house of holiness.”

Indeed, in commanding the Jewish people to construct the portable sanctuary that served them in the desert and was the forerunner of the divine home in Jerusalem, G-d said: “They shall make for Me a Mikdash (holy place or facilitator of holiness), and I shall dwell amongst them.”[2]

These descriptions of the house of G-d as a place of ‘holiness’ have also yielded the contemporary English term for Beit Hamikdash, ‘Holy Temple.’

In the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy, however, the Torah refers to the divine edifice in Jerusalem as ‘the place that G-d shall choose to have His name (i.e. His express reality) dwell therein.

The concept of divine ‘choice’ as the defining feature of the Temple is reiterated in virtually every reference to it in the Five Books of Moses (e.g. Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21 and 26; ibid., 14:24 and 25; 15:20; et al). Hence the other name by which the Temple is referred to by our sages: Be it Habechirah, ‘the house of choice’ or ‘the house of [G-d’s] choosing.’


Vessel or Implement


‘Choice’ and ‘holiness’ connote two very different – even opposite – aspects of the Temple’s role as the seat of G-d’s manifest presence in our world.

Chassidic teaching[3] illustrates this difference with an example of the different ways in which various organs of the human body serve as a vehicle for the human mind.

The body is a physical object, while the mind is a metaphysical entity; it would therefore seem that there can be no contact or interrelation between the two. Nevertheless, the miracle of human life is that matter and spirit unite to produce animation, emotion and thought. Thus, a brain of flesh can think, hypothesize, invent, and serve as a depository for the most abstract truths.

But the brain is not the only part of the body that serves as a facilitator of intellect. The hands, for example, also serve as conduits of thought, by transcribing ideas as words on paper, colors on canvas, or forms in stone.
Obviously, the brain and the hands differ greatly in how they serve as tools of the mind. The brain is a ‘vessel’ for the mind, an organ designed to house and serve it; there is something about the its material and construction that makes it a ready receptacle for the intellect.

The hand, however, is no more a ‘vessel’ for intellect than the foot, or any other part of the body. The mind has simply chosen to express itself via certain movements of the hand that, in turn, produce certain forms, which, again by the mind’s choosing, represent something intelligible.

True, the brain is mere flesh, infinitely more corporeal than the ethereal mind. But it’s not just any piece of flesh: it’s an ‘intellectual’ piece of flesh — as much as physical matter can be said to be ‘intellectual’ — a piece of flesh with attributes and features that qualify it to serve as a seat for the intellect.

The hand, however, possesses no such attributes or features — there is nothing ‘mind ready’ about its flesh. It is simply that the mind has the power to manipulate it (as it has the power to manipulate other parts of the body) in a great variety of ways, so that it can use it to produce a variety of forms to which the mind has chosen to attach significance, in the same way that it can manipulate the voice cords to produce ‘intelligible’ sounds, or the feet to produce ‘intelligible’ dance steps.
(The hands might be ‘handier’ tools for the mind’s expression than the feet, but only because they are more manipulatable, not more ‘intellectual.’)

When we speak of the divine abode in Jerusalem as a Beit Hamikdash, a ‘house of holiness,’ we are describing it as the ‘brain’ of the world. We are saying that, of all locales in the physical universe, this is the holiest — the most conducive to divine ‘residence’ and expression.

True, it is a physical entity, and, as such, infinitely removed from the divine; but within the physical world itself, it is the most spiritual of entities, as much as physical space and matter can be ‘spiritual.’ It is a holy place and edifice, a place and edifice formed and forged as a receptacle for the divine. Its very ground and stone are steeped with creation’s self-abnegation in service of its Creator; here, the ‘I am’ of the physical — the brute being and self-absorption that render it so impenetrable to divine light — has been subdued, making translucent the veil of corporeality that obscures the truth of G-d’s omnipresence. Here, the physical is less object, more subject — more holy.

Yet the brain metaphor falls short of describing the ultimate nature of the relationship between the Temple and the divine immanence it ‘housed.’

For while a certain physical entity can be said to be more spiritual that all others (in the same way that the flesh of the brain is said to be more ‘intelligent’ than the body’s other organs and limbs), G-d is not spiritual.

The spiritual might be more yielding to the divine truth, and thus more expressive of certain aspects of the divine reality, than the physical; but ultimately, G-d is no more spiritual than He is physical.

It is He who created both the physical universe and the spiritual realities, he who created the very concepts ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’; so it would be nothing less than ridiculous to define Him in either of these terms.

He transcends them both, and manipulates them both at will; ultimately, whatever significance the spiritual has as a conveyer of the divine stems not from its own ‘spiritual’ features, but from the simple fact that G-d has chosen it to express (certain aspects of) His truth.

To employ a mathematical model, the number (one million) is no closer to (infinity) than the number (one). In the same way, while the spiritual marks a departure from material self-absorption toward G-d, it is ultimately no more of a ‘vessel’ for the divine essence than the most corporeal of G-d’s creations.

The specialty of the Temple lay in that its function was to express the very essence of G-d — the divine truth that equally transcends both matter and spirit. As King Solomon proclaimed at the Temple’s dedication, ‘Behold, the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how, then, can this house that I have built You?!’[4]

How can a physical edifice, no matter how ‘spiritual’ and ‘holy,’ house the quintessential You whom the most sublime spiritual worlds (‘the heavens and the heaven of heavens’) cannot contain? Yet G-d instructed that we build a home for Him, saying ‘I shall dwell’ in it — not because it is any more ‘divine’ a place than any other, but simply because He chose to manifest Himself in this particular point of the physical universe.

So while the Beit Hamikdash might be the ‘brain’ of the world in terms of ‘holiness’ and spirituality, its ultimate relationship with the divine presence is that of a hand with the ideas the mind chooses to convey through it.

The hand’s ‘intelligence’ has nothing to do with its innate substance and construction; it stems wholly from the mind, who has chosen to express itself in a certain way — through motions and forms that are rational because the mind has chosen to attribute meaning to them.
In the same way, the ultimate significance of the Temple is that it is a Beit Habechirah — a home of G-d’s choosing. Nothing about it, including its spirituality and holiness, can be the ‘reason’ why the divine presence is to be found there — G-d could just as well have chosen any other spot or edifice on earth. But this is the place G-d chose to manifestly be, and the divine service performed within its walls is what He chose to be the facilitators of His presence.


Sanctifying the Choice


Nevertheless, the Temple is both Beit Habechirah and Beit Hamikdash.

Our sages use both terms, and use them interchangeably. A case in point is Maimonides’ codification of the laws governing the Temple’s construction and the Temple service in the eighth book of his Mishneh Torah.

The first section of this book, which deals with the Temple’s construction, is entitled Laws of the Beit Habechirah, implying that the most basic definition of the Temple is that it is an object of divine choice; but these are followed by Laws regarding the Vessels of the Mikdash and Those Who Serve In It and Laws of Entering the Mikdash.

Indeed, even the section entitled Laws of the Beit Habechirah, Maimonides also relates to the ‘holiness’ of the Temple site, enumerating many deeds of self-sacrifice and human striving for the divine that saturate its atmosphere and soil and make it the ‘appropriate’ spot for G-d’s presence on earth: ‘…the place where David and Solomon built the [Temple’s] altar is the very spot on which Abraham built the altar on which he bound Isaac. This is the spot where Noah built [his altar] on when he emerged from the ark. This is the [place of the] altar on which Cain and Abel brought their offerings, and Adam where brought an offering upon his creation…’[5]

For it is not enough for man to accept G-d’s choices and leave it at that. Even as we acknowledge that our spiritual ‘million’ is no closer to the divine infinity than our corporeal ‘one,’ we must make the effort to strive towards the ultimate, to achieve the utmost that we are capable of. We must strive to sanctify what G-d has chosen, to make it a ready receptacle for His presence on our terms, even as we acknowledge that nothing is a ‘ready receptacle’ on His terms.

Indeed, by sanctifying what G-d has chosen we deepen His connection with it and with our reality.

As explained above, G-d’s choice relates only to the thing itself, not to its nature and qualities, which are utterly irrelevant (and cannot be relevant) to the divine choice.

So when G-d chooses something, all that has happened is that the thing itself has become an implement (or ‘hand’) of the divine truth; it has yet to become a ‘brain’ — yet to become one with its role, yet to be saturated with the essence of what it is conveying.

When G-d chose a certain point in physical space as the seat of His presence, there was still nothing about its nature and character to distinguish it from any other point of the universe; but then, when Adam came and expressed his subservience to his maker on that spot, and was followed by Cain and Abel, Noah, and Abraham, the place became ‘holy’ — a place with spiritual and G-dly (or G-d-aspiring) qualities.

The same applies each time we perform a mitzvah — a physical deed which G-d has deemed an act of connection[6] with Him.

The very fact that G-d has commanded us this deed — even before we actually perform it — establishes a quintessential bond between Himself and our physical lives: G-d has chosen our physical being and environment as objects of His will. This monumental fact overshadows all else, being infinitely more significant than whatever ‘holiness’ we might achieve with our finite understanding, feelings and actions.
Yet, as long as the connection is based solely on what G-d has done, we are bound to him only as ‘hands’ are related to the mind — as implements of intellect, but without anything intellectual about them.

To become ‘brains’ of the divine mind — to become not only objects of divine choice, but also organs whose divine function defines their nature and character — we must actualize G-d’s choice of us with the sanctification of our daily lives as a Beit Hamikdash that serves His will and houses His truth.[7]

Based on a series of talks the Rebbe delivered in the Summer of 5740 (1980)[8]



[1] The First Temple was built by King Solomon in the year 2928 from creation (833 bce) and destroyed by the Babylonians in 3338 (423 bce); the Second Temple, built by Ezra 3409 (352 bce), was destroyed by the Romans in 3829 (69 ce).


[2] Exodus 25:8.


[3] See Ohr Hatorah, Vayeitzei 178a; Sefer Hamaamarim 5680, p. 184; et al.


[4] I Kings, 8:27.


[5] Laws of the Beit Habechirah, 2:2.


[6] Mitzvah, Hebrew for ‘commandment,’ also translates as ‘connection.’


[7] Cf. Shaloh, Portal of Letters, Lamed: “The verse does not say ‘[Make for Me a Mikdash, and I shall dwell] within it,’ but ‘within them — with each and every one of them.”


[8] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XIX pp. 140-147.

Reprinted from The Week In Review Vol. VI No 52 with permission from the Meaningful Life Center