Letting God In (Ex. 25:1 - 27:19)
There's an invaluable lesson behind the Torah's focus on the minutiae of building the Tabernacle
In this week's portion, we encounter one--and truly only one--topic: a set of detailed instructions for constructing the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. On first reading, this section of the book of Exodus can appear quite boring, even tedious. Boards and planks abound, while rich theological nuance and discussion seem nowhere to be found. Readers may find themselves hurriedly flipping the pages in anticipation of what comes next.
But before (or perhaps instead) or writing off this week's portion, we ought to stop and ask an obvious question, one which is in danger of being obscured by the proliferation of architectural detail: What is this Mishkan, and what purpose does it serve? Why does the Torah spend so much time and so many words planning and implementing its construction?
As I understand it, the covenant between God and Israel is about enacting a shared divine-human dream, building a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the well-known Biblical demand for freedom: "Let my people go (human dignity) that they may serve me (relationship to God)." History will not be consummated and the Messiah will not have come until both aspects of the dream have been realized -- evil has been closed out of the world, and God, in turn, has been allowed in.
Judaism revels in metaphor and paradox. Ultimately, we aspire to a world in which all land is holy and all space is sacred. But for now, we build the Mishkan--a limited space in which the presence of God can dwell. Ultimately, we aspire to a world in which all time is sanctified and every moment is an opportunity for covenantal relatedness. But for now, we enact Shabbat--a day in which the presence of God can be tangibly felt. Thus, the Mishkan is to space what Shabbat is to time--a brief glimmer now of what may be possible eeventually. We ask in the liturgy for a "day which is entirely Shabbat," and we might just as well long for "a world which is wholly Mishkan"--that is, a world in which everything is arranged just right (as if a long-lost friend or lover were about to return for good) so that God may comfortably dwell in it.
In a laconic but richly suggestive Midrash, the rabbis come close to articulating precisely this understanding of the Mishkan and its function. Rabbi Judah ben Ilai is quoted as saying that the Israelites were commanded to do three things upon arriving in the Land of Israel: "To appoint a king.to build a temple.and to root out the seed of Amalek." The first requirement is to establish a political regime based ontzedek u'mishpat
--justice and righteousness--that is, a political order in which human beings can live free of the ravages of oppression and degradation. The second requirement is to establish a space in which the presence of God can be powerfully experienced.