Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Where is God? Those who believe in God have offered theological answers, spiritual answers, faith-driven answers to that question. The answers we find in the Torah are very material – and the ‘where’ of God is bound up with the ‘what’. God is on top of a mountain (Exodus 19-20 and 24). God is in a lowly thornbush (Ex. 3:2 ff.). God is an outstretched arm (Ex. 6:6). God is an eagle bearing the people on its wings (Ex. 19: ). God is a voice that speaks and apprehends (Ex. 3:4 ff.). God is a force that rewards and punishes (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 13:13 ff.). God is a presence in our midst (Ex. 25:8).
For the past few weeks, the portions of the Torah have centred on the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. In this week’s double portion, Va-yakheil-P’kudei (Ex. 35:1-40:38), the Book of Exodus concludes with the setting up of the mishkan.
The word mishkan is based on the Hebrew root, Shin Kaf Nun to ‘dwell’. Ostensibly, the mishkan, which is also referred to as the mikdash, ‘sanctuary’, is the dwelling place of God. So, one of our answers to the question of ‘where is God?’, could be that God is in the mishkan.
But that’s not what the Torah says. Right at the beginning of the narrative of the construction of the mishkan, we read in the parashah, T’rumah, that everyone ‘whose heart is willing’ should bring an offering for the building of the mishkan (Exodus 25:2). And then, after describing the beautiful array of offerings, we read: ‘Then let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them – V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham (25:8). Numerous commentators have pointed out that the verse says ‘that I may dwell among them – b’tocham – not ‘that I may dwell in it’. Sforno, the 15th century Italian scholar, commented: ‘among Israel and accept their praise and worship.’
The significance of the notion of the Eternal dwelling among the people, becomes apparent when we read the closing verses of the previous parashah, Mishpatim. Mishpatim, which for the most part is taken up with legislation, concludes by returning to the narrative of the revelation of God at Mount Sinai and describing the ritual sealing of the covenant between God and the people. And then as if to teach that Divine revelation is momentary, we read (Exodus 24:15-16):
Moses went up into the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. / And the glory of the Eternal dwelt on mount Sinai – Va-yishkon k’vod-Adonai al-har Sinai.
So, the closing image of Mishpatim is of an ineffable and utterly remote Eternal, whose glory dwells on the top of a mountain wreathed in cloud.
And then, the Torah turns to the building of the mishkan. Again: ‘Then let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them‘. The message seems to be that we can bring the elusive, ineffable Eternal into our midst. And we do this by building, by constructing, by creating community. Martin Buber pointed out seven parallels between the account of the creation of the world and the account of the building of the mishkan (On the Bible. Eighteen Studies, Schocken Books, New York, 1968). The heart of the covenant between the Eternal and the people of Israel is our responsibility to acknowledge the Eternal in whose image we are made by being creators ourselves, and specifically, creating a society rooted in ethical relationships between people and peoples. In our efforts to do this as Liberal Jews, the image of the mishkan can be very inspiring. As our ancestors constructed a dazzling tent in the wilderness out of ‘gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins and acacia wood’ (Ex. 25: 3-5) to express the powerful presence of the Eternal in their midst, so we can also see ourselves as tent-makers, bringing God into our midst as we bring our individual offerings together and fashion an inclusive community that provides a home for us all.
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