Wilderness bible - 24.2.2012
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness," illustration from the Holman Bible (1890).
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From this week's Torah portion until the end of the final portion in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Pentateuch concerns itself with the construction of the mishkan, the "tent of meeting," or portable tabernacle. The tabernacle accompanies the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and they are in essence commanded to make an offering, a donation, that will advance the tabernacle's construction. A detailed blueprint is offered here, describing the furniture, vessels and instruments that will grace the structure; there are details about assembling its wooden framework and preparing its curtains.

The plans for both the tabernacle's construction and the rituals to be performed there are given to Moses in the course of two entire Torah portions: Parashat Terumah and Parashat Tetzaveh, which will be read next week. The subject of two additional Torah portions, Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei (which this year will be read together on Shabbat, in three weeks ), is the execution of God's instructions.

Thus the process of the construction of the divine dwelling unfolds before the very eyes of the reader, from the planning stage through the tabernacle's official, festive dedication. Specifically, this two-fold description - encompassing the plan and its execution - relates to the step-by-step process involved in creating God's house, beginning with the verbal description in this week's Torah portion to the actual construction depicted toward the end of the Book of Exodus. Furthermore, the description included in this week's reading gives us a momentary glimpse of a previous stage, albeit one that the Torah does not directly describe to the reader.

In the opening of Terumah, God says to Moses: "According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall ye make it" (Exodus 25:9). As we have seen, this verbal instruction is accompanied by a visual presentation that Moses witnesses with his very own eyes. Toward the end of the commandment that describes the creation of the tabernacle's furniture, vessels and instruments, God sums up: "And see that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount" (Exod. 25:40). Later, it is written: "as it hath been shown thee in the mount, so shall they make it" (Exod. 27:8).

After initially showing Moses a visual presentation of the tabernacle, God thus provides a verbal version of it, with more precise instructions for construction, which also include the exact dimensions of the various furnishings and the methods to be used in their manufacture and assembly.

There is something incredibly intimate in this moment, when God shows Moses the blueprints for his future home. Until now, throughout the entire Book of Genesis and for half of Exodus, no mention has been made of the divine "place of residence." God reveals himself on earth, speaks on earth and, on one occasion, even descends to earth - in the 10th Plague, in which the firstborn are smitten, about which we read four weeks ago. Now God plans to reside on earth in a dwelling that his children will construct for him.

It is the way of the world that people live in one house and dream of living in another. This fantasized dwelling, one believes, will be the place where he will truly feel at home - where he can be more himself than in his present house. He considers his dream house as being a sort of extension of his own body, an intimate, complete mirror image of the way he sees himself. It is a mirror image of his character, his desires, his dreams, his limits - and also an embodiment of his capacity for feeling truly "at home," a feeling that is difficult to define and yet makes him regard the house in which he lives as an integral part of him.

When God shows Moses the image of his future dwelling, it does not yet exist in the real world, rather only in the divine "consciousness." This is a very intimate revelation on God's part; it reflects something profound concerning himself, his nature and his image. Here the Creator discloses his secret desire to Moses and commands him to realize it: to build a house for him on earth.

The description of the vision of this future dwelling marks the beginning of a process in which the tabernacle or its spirit is transferred from heaven to earth. The tabernacle is still only an image; it has not yet been verbalized, it still has no dimensions, it still has no tangible materials to be used in its construction. At this point, it is a pure "feeling of home."

Toward the end of Parashat Pekudei, the Torah reports: "So Moses finished the work" (Exod. 40:33), and "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exod. 40:34-35).

The king has entered his palace. But will it actually become God's house? Right now there is only a possibility of this - a possibility that depends on the degree of collaboration between God and his new "neighbors." That is, if they make a place for him, he will come and live among them. As it is written: "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Exod. 25:8).

It is the duty of mortal beings to make room for God, to prepare the ground for the Creator's descent to earth and for taking up residence in his temporal dwelling, in the very center of the camp of his nation.

History itself provides a hint of an answer to the question of whether said dwelling is truly God's house. Indeed, the portable tabernacle is not his final home. After this structure is created, two additional ones were constructed for God: the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. However, he is still waiting for the construction of his permanent dwelling - on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.