SOME PEOPLE look for the sacred by closing their eyes, shutting out the world, lifting themselves above the fray. Others find the holy by hurling themselves into the struggles of their fellow human beings, throwing their weight against the injustices of their day.What if both paths shine a bit of the light, but neither possesses it all? Rather than permitting religion to devolve into a childish debate of winners and losers, let’s enter the swirl of Torah’s waters and seek the cool clarity that ancient wisdom can confer.
In the portion Tetzave, the Torah focuses on the establishment of the priesthood through Aaron and his children, on the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting as the place for ancient Israel to experience intimacy with the Holy One.Toward the end of the elaborate rituals of installation for the new kohanim, the Torah records a precious promise: There I will meet you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites and it [the Tent of Meeting] shall be sanctified by my presence.The great 11th century sage Rashi begins his commentary on the verse with a contextual reading: “For my shekhina will rest in it.” That is to say that God’s immanence will be pervasive in this special space.Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, agrees, writing that the verse means, “I will manifest myself to the people of Israel when the Tabernacle will be erected and the celestial fire will descend.” In other words, God’s “honor” means God’s proximity in a sheltered place of holiness. Closeness to the sacred is what God’s honor is all about.But there is another, equally venerated, tradition that takes a different path. According to an interpretation in the Talmud, this verse refers not to God’s honor, but God’s honors, that is to say, “through my honored ones.” The medieval Spanish-Jewish commentator Rabbeinu Bahya favors this second line of interpretation, saying, “God feels honored and glorified by those near to God.”In other words, God’s honor comes not from God’s proximity, but from people doing the right deeds.We all know people who are strict in their religious practice and their observance makes them more compassionate, wiser, more patient and kind. But we also know people whose religious passion makes them shrill, judgmental, cruel and smug. God’s honor is sometimes a matter of feeling close to the warm, integrated feelings and encounters that religion can make possible. But not always.We know secular people who are motivated by their beliefs to care for their fellow human beings and pursue justice. They feel the responsibility to be hands of caring and decency in an uncaring cosmos.But we also know secular people whose nihilism and relativism can makes them shrill, judgmental, cruel and smug. God’s honor is sometimes a matter of encountering people who won’t take no for an answer, who see a different vision and work to make it real. But not always.Both interpretations of the Torah’s verse are traditional and plausible: God’s honor as presence or God’s honor as people and action. Both interpretations offer us a valuable way of translating the Torah’s words into living wisdom, and both contain the seeds for possible abuse: A warped spirituality that asks us to close our eyes and accept injustice or suffering as the way it has always been and must be; or a narcissistic activism that bulldozes real people for the sake of an abstraction or cause.We can become no better than Job’s friends if we thinks ours is the only path. But both pathways together provide a corrective to potential abuse from the other. If we meld together the wisdom of the Talmud and Rabbeinu Bahya’s understanding with the insight of Rashi and Rashbam’s reading, then we know that sometimes God’s honor is found by closing our eyes, breathing deeply and strolling in the innermost courtyard of our souls.And sometimes we encounter God by opening our eyes and arms in the service of our fellow human beings (and other living creatures) who cry for our healing, our engagement, our love.How precious: an ambiguous Torah verse that invites our multiple ways of reading it, so that we recall that there are many ways to honor God – spiritual and communal, introspection and activism. Both call out to the other for balance, for correction, for a reminder that the Holy One is close, but always welcomes a bit more effort. Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (Los Angeles) and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at Potsdam University (Germany). He is the author of ‘Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit’