Why does G-d desire a dwelling place in this world?

A review of a Chassidic discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on the verse said by Jacob in Genesis 32:11, “Katonti MiKol HaChasadim” (“I have become small from all the kindnesses”)

Reviewed by N. Schulman, 21 Cheshvan 5777 (21 November 20’16)

In this Chassidic discourse, the Rebbe discusses the fundamental concept of “dira b’tachton”: making for G-d a “dwelling in the lowest place” – meaning in this physical world. Making that dwelling place for G-d is the purpose and mission for our life, but there are questions that need to be answered, to really understand what we need to do to bring it about.

The first question is: How can we do this? How is it that we, existing as physical people, can make a dwelling place for G-d specifically in this world? Why wouldn’t His dwelling instead be in any of the upper realms? (More specifically, why not in the highest spiritual world, Atzilus, which is the most G-dly)? Aren’t the spiritual worlds more nullified to G-dliness and therefore better suited for expressing it?

The second question is about physicality: Why is it that this physical, egotistical, and limited world is the place where the Infinite G-d will find a comfortable residence? How can the limited world hold and express the unlimited G-d?

To answer these questions, the Rebbe first brings a possible explanation from Rambam (Maimonides). Rambam defines the “dwelling” of G-d as a revelation of His Light that passes through the physical and spreads throughout the world. He makes a distinction between the concepts of a “vessel” and a “tool”: a “vessel” holds and internalizes (or comprehends) what is inside, while a “tool” simply allows an influence to be passed through it. He explains that a dwelling for G-d, like the Holy Temple (Bais HaMikdash) that was and will be established in Jerusalem, is a revelation of G-dliness that comes in the way of a tool. His meaning is that while this physical world cannot hold G-d Himself, it can allow a ray of G-dly Light to pass through it, by way of the Holy Temple.

However, the Rebbe says this is not the case for the time of the Messianic Era, which is coming soon. When we speak of a “dira b’tachton” in that time, we mean that G-d’s Essence will be present and comfortable here in this lowest, physical world, in an openly revealed manner. It will not be just a ray of His Light or His Presence. Rather, He Himself will dwell here. But this leads us right back to the questions: Why and how can this physical world be chosen to house and express G-d?

When we call this physical world “limited,” we are saying that it is bound by time, and more specifically, by space. But if we take a deeper look, space is not as limiting as we may think. Space can be conceptualized in two ways: (a) what surrounds an object, or (b) the void that an object is displacing. The first option makes space an existence on its own, while the second makes space a description for something that does not exist at all. Interestingly, G-d is called “HaMakom,” “the Place.” This is because He is the “place” or space of the world; that is, His G-dliness both (a) transcendently surrounds the creation and (b) permeates the creation. These two dimensions of G-dliness are the two different concepts for space that we mentioned. The G-dliness that transcendently surrounds the universe is G-d’s Eternal Light, but the aspect of G-d that fills this universe (i.e. the aspect of G-d which is the place that the universe takes up), is G-d’s Essence. It is G-d Himself that permeates this physical world.

All worlds in the spiritual realms are “bittul” (nullified) to G-d. The physical space of this world has an added aspect that is it not only completely nullified to G-d; it is also permeated with G-dliness to the point that it is one with G-d Himself! This means that physical objects in this world can have G-d Himself reside in them because He can fill the space that the objects take up. He can reveal His unlimitedness, His infinity, while being clothed in a limited and finite object of this world. However, this can only occur if the limited object is perfectly matched with G-d’s will.

To bring an example, the Holy Ark (the Aron) which holds the Tablets of the 10 Commandments and which was placed in the Holy Temple, was a physical object in which G-d rested. It was placed in the center of the innermost room, called the “Kodesh HaKedoshim” (Holy of Holies). When a person measured the Holy Ark it was 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits, and when one measured the room of the Holy of Holies it was twenty cubits by twenty cubits. However, if one measured from one side of the Holy Ark to the closest wall of the room, and the other side of the Holy Ark to its closest wall, the measurement would come to 10 cubits on each side. Thus, the Holy Ark took up space as a physical object, but it did not take up any space in the Holy of Holies. If the Jews at Mount Sinai would have built an Ark that was (say) a quarter of a cubit different from G-d’s instructions, it would not have been matched with G-d’s will, and this miracle would not have occurred, because it would not have qualified to have G-d dwelling in it in such a revealed manner.

The above explanation shows how our finite physical world, the Earth, can be a dwelling for the Infinite G-d. But why is it specifically our world that G-d desires to have a comfortable dwelling in, as opposed to the upper spiritual realms? Can’t G-d have the same dwelling in the spiritual space of the upper realms? They have a greater nullification to G-dliness and a greater revelation of G-dliness, so why does G-d want a “dira b’tachton” in this lowest, physical world?

The Rebbe proposes three answers. He disregards the first two as unsatisfying, and he explains how the last one is the true answer:

The first proposed explanation is that while the “upper,” spiritual worlds are more nullified to G-dliness, the achievement of a nullification of this physical world to G-d is a novel and unique idea. Like a king will enjoy the talking of a parrot over the speaking of a human being because it is unusual, so too, G-d enjoys the nullification to G-dliness that this world can achieve, because it is unusual that a physical and egotistical world will be nullified to G-d. However, this answer is not very satisfying, because G-d requests of us to do what’s needed for Him to dwell here and to be comfortable here. He may enjoy the nullification to Him that this world can achieve, but to dwell here on a permanent basis for this reason is not very plausible, because its novelty would not last eternally.

The second explanation that the Rebbe proposes it that the nullification of this world comes from a place beyond our understanding. Human beings are nullified to G-d because His greatness is so beyond us that we can’t understand it. To give an analogy: a regular scholar respects and is nullified to a genius because he understands how the genius is so intellectually above him. But a non-scholar is much more nullified to the same genius, because as a simple person, his nullification comes from the fact that he knows almost nothing in comparison to a genius. So too, our nullification to G-d, as opposed to that of the spiritual worlds, comes from the fact that we can’t comprehend His greatness. We can have self-sacrifice (“mesiras nefesh”) for Him and His commandments even though we have no intellectual concept of Who or What G-d really is. Nevertheless, although this answer does fit better with the concept of nullification, it doesn’t answer why G-d desires a dwelling specifically in the physical world.

The third and final answer is the conclusion that the Rebbe ends with. The reason that G-d dwells specifically in this egotistical world is because our nullification comes from setting aside our ego and our sense of self, i.e., our sense of being separate from Him. The creation of the physical self that makes humans feel separate from G-d is a power that comes only from G-d’s Essence, whereas His transcendent G-dly Light is so unified with Him that it cannot create something that feels separate from Him. Only G-d Himself can do that. Therefore, the physical creation that comes from His Essence is one with Him, and when we physical and egotistical humans nullify ourselves to G-d, we are showing – in the most revealing manner possible – that G-d is one with His creations. It is in the place where that unity is most revealed that He is most comfortable, and therefore He desires for His main dwelling to be in this lowest, physical world.,

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