By:  Rabbi Daniel Aronson

As the Book of Exodus comes to a close, the careful reader of Torah notices similarities between the mishkan (tabernacle), which has been a recurring theme for several weeks now, and the creation story at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. My friend and colleague Rabbi Shai Held offers an important teaching about this similarity in his weekly essay from where he sits as Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, http://www.mechonhadar.org/home, a cutting-edge educational institution. In his essay, Rabbi Held notes how the world that God created has been less than hospitable as a home for God’s presence. The mishkan, therefore, becomes humanity’s attempt to make things right, to create a space where God’s presence is known. By extension, the mishkan symbolizes the ongoing effort incumbent upon all of us to make the whole world a dwelling place for the Divine.

I am so moved by Rabbi Held’s writing that I sought and received his permission to reproduce his essay here. I am grateful to Rabbi Held for sharing his insights with us this week. Learn and enjoy!

To sign up to receive Rabbi Shai Held’s weekly essay directly to your inbox, click here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/11MMeI3QQx5GaFFmEklk1wZfRwcOPNUiBMir_5pKQyS8/viewform

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Aronson

Building a Home for God

by Rabbi Shai Held

After reporting on all that had been done in erecting the mishkan(tabernacle), the Torah declares: “And Moses saw (vayar) all he tasks (kol ha-melakhah), and behold (ve-hinei), they had done it (asu) – as the Lord had commanded, so had they done – and Moses blessed them” (Exodus 39:43). To the attentive reader, the links to the creation story are unmistakable: “And God saw (vayar) all (kol) that God had done (asah), and, behold (ve-hinei), it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). In the one case, God looks and sees, while in the other Moses does; in both cases, everything has been completed just as God wants. There seems to be a deep connection between God’s creation of the world on the one hand, and the Israelites’ construction of the mishkan on the other.[1]  But just what is that connection, and what is it intended to suggest?

The literary links between creation and the mishkan are both abundant and striking. Immediately after God looks and sees that the world is good, Genesis tells us that “the heaven and the earth were finished (vayekhulu) (Genesis 2:1). Similarly, when the mishkan is completed, Exodus says that “all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished” (vatekhel) (Exodus 39:32). In the creation story, we learn that “on the seventh day God finished (vayekhal) His work (melakhto) which He had done” (Genesis 2:2); in the story of the mishkan, we discover that “Moses finished (vayekhal) the work (ha-melakhah)” (Exodus 40:33). After God evaluates the world, we are informed that “God blessed (vayevarekh) the seventh day” (Genesis 2:3); after Moses sees that the mishkan has been built according to plan, we hear that “Moses blessed” (vayevarekh) the Israelites (Exodus 39:43).

In Exodus, there are six days of preparation for receiving God’s revelation, and God’s instructions are given to Moses on the seventh day. These instructions are presented in seven distinct divine speeches, each of which begins with “the Lord spoke (vayedaber) or “the Lord said” (vayomer) (Exodus 25:1; 30:11,17,22,34; 31:1,12). These seven speeches mirror Genesis’ description of God’s utilization of speech to create the world in seven days. The seventh and final speech enjoins the Israelites to keep Shabbat (Exodus 31:12-17), just as the seventh day of creation introduces the seventh day as God’s day of rest. Lest we miss the point, this seventh divine communication concludes: “[The Shabbat] shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, He ceased from work and was refreshed” (31:17). The instructions for the construction of the mishkan thus not only allude to God’s creation of the world, but also explicitly culminate by invoking it.

But there are even more literary connections. Exodus describes Bezalel, the mishkan‘s chief craftsman, as endowed with a “divine spirit” (ruach Elohim) (Exodus 31:3; 35:31). That Hebrew phrase, ruach Elohim, has occurred only once before in the Torah: Just as God is about to begin creating the world, Genesis tells us that a “divine spirit” (ruach Elohim) was sweeping over the water (Genesis 1:2). By now, I trust, the point is clear: The Torah wants us to know that God’s creation of the world and Israel’s construction of the mishkan are intertwined in a highly significant way. To return to where we started: Precisely how and why are world-creation and mishkan-construction so intimately connected?

On one level, the implication of the coupling of the construction of the mishkan and the creation of the world is that the mishkan is intended to serve as a microcosm, a world in miniature. To understand what this means, we ought to consider one more literary link between mishkan in Exodus and creation in Genesis. The final chapter of Exodus contains seven instances of the expression “just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Exodus 40:19,21,23,25,27,29,32), which serves a similar function to the sevenfold repetition of the phrase “And God saw that is was good” in Genesis (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31). Bible scholar Jon Levenson helpfully draws out the relationship between the two repeating formulas: “The theological substance of the two similar refrains is a pointed insistence upon the correspondence of the object constructed with the intentions of God. The [mishkan] and the world both result from the perfect realization of divine commandments, and nothing that God has commanded falls short of his expectations.” [2] The mishkan, like the world, is a perfect realization of God’s plans.

Except that in reality – and according to the Torah itself – the world as we find it falls far short of God’s hopes and expectations. Instead of a world in which human dignity is real, we live in a world in which barbarism and cruelty all too often rule the day, in which unspeakable suffering pervades every corner of the globe, and in which all talk of human dignity can thus sound like so much Pollyanna nonsense. Instead of a world in which God’s presence is manifest and almost tangible, we live in a world in which God all too often seems utterly absent, so much so that talk of God can seem like little more than wishful fantasy. One way to think about the Torah – and, for that matter, about human history as a whole – is as a story of divine disillusionment and disappointment. The best laid plans of God, too, often go awry.

In a world overrun by chaos, the mishkan, I’d like to suggest, is intended to serve as one place in which everything unfolds according to the divine plan – “just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” In Levenson’s apt formulation, the mishkan is meant to be a world, “an ordered, supportive, and obedient environment.”[3]  Amidst all the world’s brokenness, then, there is to be one place, at least, in which God really is present and God’s word really is authoritative. It is as if God says to Moses and the Israelites: I made you a place to live, now you make one for Me.

But Judaism could never rest content with one small pocket of order and goodness in a world otherwise utterly adrift. If the correspondence betweenmishkan and world is meant to suggest that the mishkan is supposed to be a miniature world, it is equally supposed to remind us that the world is intended to be a very large tabernacle – that is, a place in which God’s word is obeyed, God’s presence felt, and God’s dreams for the world fulfilled. Like the mishkan, the world is supposed to be “a place in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged, and his holiness is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive.” Just as the mishkan is a microcosm, so the world is – or is supposed to be – what Levenson calls a “macro-temple.” [4]

Jewish theology often wrestles with the tragic sense that although God brought the world into being, the world has run so totally amok that God’s presence seems to be in exile. In a world so filled with callousness and inhumanity, so enamored of idols both insipid and insidious, where is there room for God? In a world so permeated by selfishness and indifference, where can the God who shatters our indifference and commands us to love the stranger dwell? As we read the thirteen chapters in Exodus about the mishkan (25-31, 35-40), we are challenged to ask: How can I live my life in a way that makes space for God – not just in the forms and rituals of religion, which can so easily become shallow or corrupt – but also in the most fundamental ways I carry myself in the world? How can we – my community and the Jewish people as a whole – live in such a way as to let God in?

For the religious person, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) writes about prayer applies to life as a whole as well: “God is in exile; the world is corrupt. The universe itself is not at home. To pray means to bring God back into the world, to establish His kingship for a second at least. To pray means to expand His presence… To worship, therefore, means to make God immanent, to make Him present. His being immanent in the world depends upon us.” [5] The challenge before us, in other words, is to transform the idea that the world is a temple, a home for God’s presence, from a pretty but potentially banal notion into a tangible reality and a life’s project. Even in a world in which God seems so far, it is possible to create moments when God’s presence is brought intimately near.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Shai Held is Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, http://www.mechonhadar.org/home.


[1] In exploring the connection between the mishkan and the world in biblical theology, two useful places to start are Jon D. Levenson: Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (1988), pp. 78-99, and Samuel E. Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship (1999), pp. 136-141.

[2] Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p. 84.

[3] Levenson, Creation,p. 86.

[4] Levenson. Creation, p. 86.

[5] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (1966), p. 258.

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