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 on tzedek 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.
The Bible worries that perhaps we will get excessively caught up, even distracted, by physical detail. So God says quite explicitly, "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." As countless commentators have pointed out, we might well have expected God to announce that God will dwell "in it" (the Sanctuary). But God instead promises to dwell "among them."--that is, among the people of Israel. The physical space is not an end in itself. It is, rather, a means and an opportunity; in it, God and humanity can meet and even experience intimate relatedness.
Notice also that God does not merely proclaim that on a given day in a particular place God will dwell on Earth.First Israel must build something, a space in which God--and all that God values and stands for--is truly welcome. One is reminded of the Kotzker rebbe's famous reply to his student's question. "Rebbe," the disciple asks, "Where does God live?" "Easy," says the rabbi, "God dwells wherever we let God in." The tabernacle is a passionate and loving attempt to let God in."
Our portion and the commentaries we have seen offer us a powerful program for letting God into our lives and worlds. Through painstaking attention to detail; through the passionate pursuit of a just and dignity-affirming political reality; through the construction of spaces and times which the hoped-for eventually can be tasted and touched; through righteous refusal to sit silently in the face of evil; through all these things and more, we can let God in.
These are the planks and boards out of which a redeemed world can and must be built.