The Divine is in the details

What Does An Infinite G‑d Have With A Finite World?

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov, Jax, FL

Once, on Rosh Hashanah, the Alter Rebbe Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, asked his son the Miteler Rebbe to share some of the thoughts upon which he had concentrated during his Davening-prayers earlier that day.

The Mitlerer Rebbe proceeded to enumerate the various liturgical passages and Kabalistic intentions upon which he had reflected. The Miteler Rebbe then inquired of the Alter Rebbe regarding his own meditations.

Instead of the profound and lofty response for which the Miteler Rebbe was prepared, the Alter Rebbe indicated that his thoughts were focused upon his “chair and Shtender-lectern,” (a reference to the presence of the Divine within the physical).


The Rebbe of Pscizcha once turned to one of his young disciples, who was later to become the Rebbe of Kotzk, and presented the following query: "Young man, where can one find G‑d?" "G‑d is everywhere," replied the young scholar. "Does not His glory fill the universe?"

"Young man," persisted the Pscizcher, "I asked you where one could find G‑d?" The Kotzker was quiet. "Well, if I don't know then please tell me," he requested.

The Pscizcher then said, "Listen, young man, “G‑d can be found wherever he is allowed in."

I came a across a story told by a certain Rabbi who had decided one December to accept an invite to play the role of “Santa” for a bunch of underprivileged kids in his community. Upon reading his account and how inspiring the experience had been for him, I could not help but puzzle over the man’s values and reasoning.

I soon realized that part of the answer to my perplexity lie in the fellow’s own words: “The question of stumbling across customs and religious boundaries did not concern me; I’d always believed in encouraging people to be less rigid about maintaining those rigid lines. .  . So I practiced my sonorous and ‘Ho, ho, hos.’”

When considering the nature of G‑d and Divinity, G‑d’s infinitude; the fact that He has neither body nor form, or any other type of limitation, is an axiomatic characteristic.  All established religions are united in portraying G‑d as being above and beyond anything finite or physical; too vast to be restricted or defined by substance or matter. In fact, the very definition of the word “G‑d” implies infinitude and boundlessness.

The trouble is that this theology tends to leave G‑d a tad removed from our physical world and daily activities. What, after all, does an infinite G‑d want with a material and finite world? The fact that He created it does not mean that it is part of His essence, much as any created entity does not share the essence of its maker.

While He certainly had good reason for creating a physical universe and its earthling inhabitants, goes the thinking, it is not their earthy and mundane characteristics which attract His interest, but rather their higher intellectual and emotional qualities and potential.

It is for this very reason that in many cases the search for G‑d and spirituality leads its seeker to a form of worship that negates the physical dimension. Because G‑d is infinite and exalted, He is thought to be aloof. He is thought to be removed from the physical and corporeal aspects of life. Hence the way to interact with G‑d is by virtue of our higher human faculties, i.e., knowledge, love, etc.  

If there is a use for action, it would have to be to serve and fulfill the higher senses of intellect or emotion. However, physical matter and deed, in and of themselves, are not perceived to be a plausible means of Divine service and interaction. Certainly not the sort of worship that G‑d would prescribe.

This type of thinking is what has led so many people to the popular mindset of “belief without action.”  In fact the majority of people who profess to believe in G‑d fall into this category. To them the observance of Mitzvos or rituals that do not serve a logical, tangible purpose (Mitzvos between man and G‑d) is a senseless endeavor. 

“Does G‑d really care if I wait six full hours between meat and milk, and not five hours and fifty minutes,” they muse.  “Does G‑d have nothing better to do than fret over the size of the piece of Matzoh I eat on Passover, or whether I eat it at all?

“What good does it do for an infinite G‑d, or anyone else, whether or not I wrap the black straps of Teffilin around my arms, or whether I observe the sundry laws of Shabbos or Kashrus?” There are those who would argue that it is actually demeaning to suggest that an almighty and unbounded G‑d would concern Himself with such seemingly trivial matters.

Judaism, however, stands firm in its belief to the contrary. Perhaps one of Judaism’s most revolutionary contributions to theology and the G‑d/man relationship is the notion that G‑d can be found in the finite as much as the infinite; that we serve G‑d with our hands as much as with our brains.

G‑d’s true greatness and infinitude is expressed in the fact that He is not excluded from the finite. While most things that are infinite lack the characteristic of finitude, G‑d, who is the ultimate and quintessential model of infinitude, cannot be barred from the finite. For that in itself would constitute a limit.

Hence, asserts Jewish theology, G‑d’s presence can be found in all types of finite objects and human behaviors; that the finite margins of time, space, shape, substance, color and human action make a difference to Him.

For reasons known to Him, there is higher Divine presence in specific actions that are carried out within the framework of a given time or place, be it the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah or the four species on the holiday of Sukkos, or any of the other multitude of Divine commandments.    

In light of the above we can understand why in this Week’s Parsha, Tetzaveh, G‑d continues to issue detailed instructions with regards to the building of the Sanctuary and the design of the priestly garments – Why an infinite G‑d would involve himself with the shape, size, color and substance of every aspect and nuance of the Temple, down to the finest detail.

May G‑d grant us physicality in abundance so that we may build for Him a magnificent Temple with the coming of the righteous Moshiach.