Is God “In” the Universe?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not send His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld Elokim (God of justice, punishment) and they ate and drank (Exod. 24:9-11).”

Rashi comments:

“They gazed intently and failing in this, they peeped in their attempt to catch a glimpse of the Supreme Being, and thereby made themselves liable to death. But it was only because God did not wish to disturb the joy caused by the Giving of the Torah, that He did not punish them instantly but postponed the punishment for Nadav and Avihu until the day when the Tabernacle was dedicated, when they were stricken with death, and for the elders until the event of which the text relates, (Num. 11:1) “And when the people complained…and the fire of the Lord burned among them and destroyed those who were the “nobles” of the camp (Midrash Tanchuma, Beha'alosecha 16).”

Rashi accuses Nadav, Avihu and the elders [Moses and Aaron did not sin] of attributing physicality to God; they thought there was something to see in connection with God. But God’s intent in commanding Mt. Sinai be roped-off was to avoid this: “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death” (Exod. 19:12).

Torah teaches that God is unrelated to the physical:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, is the ‘place’ of the universe, but His universe is not His place [Tanchuma, Genesis Rabbah 68:8] (Rashi Exod. 33:21).”  

God being the “place” of the universe means that without God, the universe can’t exist, just like without location/place, nothing can exist. If there were no place (space) it would be impossible for anything physical to exist. The quote continues, “His universe is not His place” emphasizing that once God created the universe, He does not occupy any space within it. This is sensible, as God existed prior to the universe. The universe’s existence has no affect on God’s nature, which went unchanged before and after creation. As He existed unrelated to a physical universe before creation, He remains unchanged, not existing in any physical manner. Maimonides teaches that belief in a physical God, even if one thinks God occupies space, forfeits one’s afterlife. That is most severe.  

“To whom, then, can you liken God, what form compares to Him?” (Isaiah 40:18).

To whom, then, can you liken Me, to whom can I be compared?” —says the Holy One” (Isaiah 40:25).

Isaiah proclaimed that God is unlike anything else. This means He is not physical, and cannot occupy place or space.

It is impossible for a person to suggest how the physical world was created. This is because man is only aware of the physical universe and suggesting what existed prior to the physical world is pure imagination, and is as impossible as suggesting what God is. By definition, man would be in error to apply these physical laws to a time which preceded the physical. Maimonides explains this (Guide, book II, chap. xvii). One must restrain his infantile need to make all agreeable to his emotions, forcing all phenomena into familiar physical space, as the Jews sinned when creating the Gold Calf to replace the “man” Moses (Exod. 32:1).  Instead, man must claim ignorance about how God created the universe from nothing. Certainly, suggesting the universe was made from “part of God” is baseless and heretical.

God existed prior to the universe. The creation of the universe is the creation of something other than God. The Rabbis are united in their position that God's creation of the universe was a creation from nothingness and not the creation pantheists suggest, that God molded himself into the universe and He  now permeates all matter. But many people cannot tolerate the concept of creation ex-nihilo (from nothingness) and therefore imagine that God took a piece of Himself to create the universe. They feel, as God was all that existed, when He made the universe, it had to be made “from His material.” This is a sinful projection of one’s limited physical orientation. Such a person assumes that all operated at creation, just as the universe operates now. As now, any creation is mere manipulation of existing substance, they feel God’s creation of the universe too was God manipulating Himself into all the galaxies, and that He is now part of every corner of the universe. Such notions emanate from an infantile imagination, they are baseless, and they are not found anywhere in the Prophets. Again, Maimonides says such notions forfeit one’s afterlife. 

Nadav Avihu and the elders sinned. They were overtaken by God’s imminent revelation at Sinai. They sinfully looked for some “appearance” of God, but saw only the sky, which they projected was now special: “pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” As thy saw nothing but sky, they assumed God was “above” the sky: “under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” If under God’s feet was sky, God sat above the sky. This verse depicts the sin. The next verse depict the accusation: “Yet He did not send His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld Elokim (God of justice, punishment) and they ate and drank.” God “not sending forth His hand” means He didn’t smite the sinners, as Rashi states, but they were worthy of smiting. Also, God’s name is changed in this verse from “God of Israel” to “Elokim” denoting justice. This verse indicates that justice was warranted for their attempt to see something in relationship to God. “Eating and drinking” is also mentioned, as it is mentioned when the Jews sinned with the Gold Calf: “Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance” (Exod. 32:6). This teaches that once a person caves to one emotional desire, he seeks satisfaction for all his other desires (Rabbi Israel Chait). Thus, once Nadav Avihu and the elders sinned in attributing physicality to God (He could be seen), their other emotions of appetite were awakened. “The Lord struck at the men of Beit Shemesh because they looked into the Ark of the Lord; He struck down 57,000 men” (I Samuel 6:19). Here is a parallel sin, where man attempted to “see” God. In both cases, man believed God to partake of some physicality. Such a belief forfeits one’s life, for all he believes is false. His life has no purpose. We also notice God refers to Nadav, Avihu and the elders as “nobles,” thereby teaching that no one is exempt from anthropomorphizing God; even “nobles” can succumb to the same emotions lesser people have. The only guard against sin is knowledge. 

Finally, Rashi says God punished Nadav and Avihu when they offered the strange fire, thereby linking their anthropomorphism with innovating their own fire sacrifice. Both sins emanated from the same source: projecting one’s emotional beliefs onto his relationship to God. The elders too were punished when they tested (Sforno) to see if God was among them—“murmuring in God’s ears”—thereby suggesting God interacts with time and space like a physical entity. Rashi means that the very sin of looking for God and then imagining He exists “above” the heavens, is linked to later sins sharing a common sinful expression.