Holy housewarming can strengthen community
Suppose you fell in love, and wanted your beloved to move in with you. You would probably arrange the residence exactly the way s/he likes it, with the furniture positioned and the tchotchkes deployed in precisely the configuration your darling prefers. With luck, you will soon be cohabitating.
That’s what our Torah portion is about. Israel has constructed the tabernacle according to God’s specifications and hopes the Almighty will move in.
Here in the final two-and-a-half chapters of Exodus, we put the finishing touches on the abode and anxiously await our sweetie’s verdict. Yes or no?
The weirdness of an apartment for God is apparent to every reader. As the Almighty quips in Isaiah 66:1, “Heaven is My throne and earth is My footstool: what sort of house could you build for Me?”
The tabernacle, like the synagogue, is a paradox: an earthly dwelling for God, who does not need an earthly dwelling. The text exuberantly details the accessories of the sanctuary, as if the infinite God required a table, lamps, screens and curtains. The point, presumably, is that we will feel closer to a God, whom we can imagine lounging at the table, blinking at the lamps, dozing behind the screens, fiddling with the curtains.
The prophets expand on the paradigm of the tabernacle. Both Isaiah (6:1) and Ezekiel (1:26) report visions of God’s throne. Why would an omnipotent God ever need to sit down: is God tired? But that is like asking why God rested on the seventh day of creation. To set an example for us, I suppose.
Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai taught: “Three who ate from one table and said over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten from the table of the Blessed Omnipresent.” (Mishnah Avot 3:3) Our furniture becomes God’s furniture when used for a holy purpose. That’s why Moses hired Bezalel and Oholiab to decorate the tabernacle. Not to fill some lack in God’s existence, but to sanctify Israel’s holdings.
Modern theologians, notably Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Martin Buber (1878-1965), emphasize relationship as the essence of religion. Rosenzweig’s book, “The Star of Redemption,” interprets the familiar Star of David emblem as a symbol of connection, the interweaving of triangles representing the interaction of cosmic processes. Buber’s book “I and Thou,” proposes that most meetings are perfunctory, as we are not willing to be altered by the experience: few rendezvous are truly significant, in the sense that we are available for change. But an encounter with God can only be of this second kind: God is not really there at all, unless we are open to transformation.
Rosenzweig and Buber find in their newfangled quest for meaning what Moses found in the tabernacle. Though we tend to imagine that faith came more easily to our ancestors, faith is in fact a struggle in every age. We have to access God in the way that is personally powerful for us. God is only present “if you seek God with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
It is evident, then, that the mishkan does not serve the usual purpose of housing: protection from the elements. Rather, it is a concretization of our relationship with the deity. The point of the tabernacle was defined back in Exodus 25:8: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Not “that I may dwell in it”: God does not seek a roof over God’s head. What God seeks is intimacy with God’s people.
And the denouement? In the final verses of the portion (and the book), “Moses finished the work, and the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. … The Eternal’s cloud was upon the Tabernacle by day, and the fire was upon it by night, in sight of all Israel in all their journeys.” (Exodus 40:33-34, 38) Success! God moved in. I love a happy ending.
There’s something we say when we finish any of the five books of Moses. Upon concluding each book of the Pentateuch, we recite: Chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazzek; be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. Here at the end of Exodus, we reflect that Torah is supposed to make us strong. And not only strong as individuals, but also strong as a community. So may it be God’s will.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)