D’Var Torah: God in holy spaces

 

Plot and phrasing are the most obvious ways the Torah conveys meaning. Juxtaposition is similarly important. The passages the Torah places alongside one another are a vital clue to meaning. The rabbis call this semikhut parshiyot. Notice, then, how the Torah introduces the section we read this month detailing the building, furnishing and sacrificial functioning of the mishkan, the portable yet opulent sanctuary in the Israelites’ camp:

“And Moses went up, and the cloud covered the mountain… And the sight of the LORD’s glory was like consuming fire at the mountaintop before the eyes of the Israelites. And Moses entered within the cloud and went up the mountain, and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24: 15-18)

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelites … They shall make Me a Tabernacle, that I may abide in their midst.” (Exodus 25:1-2, 8)

God is to reside in the mishkan. Our ancestors understood that God’s kavod or glory, an essential, seemingly physical presence, could occupy a specific space, imbuing it with extraordinary holiness. It was this kind of abode that God instructs the Israelites, through Moses, to assemble so that God may truly be among them throughout their fraught wilderness journey from slavery to freedom.

Immediately prior to receiving instructions for the Tabernacle, we’ve learned that Moses has slipped inside the cloud covering Sinai’s summit since God’s kavod came to rest there.

So what does the semikhut parshiyot here teach?

The Tabernacle is meant to parallel for the Israelites Moses’ intimate experience with, and of, God on the mountaintop. In case there is any doubt, see how Exodus concludes, when assembly of the mishkan is complete:

“And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting [that is, the mishkan] and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle… For the LORD’s cloud was over the Tabernacle by day, and fire by night was in it, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.” (Exodus 40:34-38)

From the cloud, to the fire, to God’s seemingly physical presence, what happened for Moses at the mountaintop is here described as happening for the Israelites in the center of their camp. We think of Mount Sinai as a place and experience distant from our own but the Torah seems to be saying that Mount Sinai is, or can be, with us every day. The Torah wants us to perceive the intimacy of God’s presence among us. It’s not only Moses on a desert mountaintop who can hope to feel it.

If the lessons from the similarities are clear, what differences do we need to note in considering these adjacent passages?

Remember that the Torah’s detailing of the particulars of the mishkan is jarringly interrupted in chapter 32 by the Golden Calf episode. While Moses has communed with God the people have panicked and fashioned an idol in his absence. So withdrawn is Moses that God has to inform him of what’s going on down below. “Quick, go down, for your people that I brought up from Egypt has acted ruinously.” (Exodus 32:7)

Moses’ sustained, private audience with God is incompatible with his role as leader. His spirit may be with God, but what God needs from him requires that his life be with people. Meanwhile, the mishkan is assembled in the midst of the camp, in the very center of the people’s lives. Moreover, we learn later that if the Israelites conduct themselves incompatibly with God’s presence, God will withdraw from the mishkan. We can chase God from among us by how we treat one another.

There is a mystical appeal to holy spaces, those places where we feel God already is and where we might go to find Him. Isaiah expresses this thus: “Seek God where He may be found.” (Isaiah 55:6) But the present chapters of Exodus remind us of the Kotzker Rebbe’s famous teaching that God is to be found where we let Him in. That is, in our day to day lives, in our homes and families and along our routine pathways. For it’s in those spaces that we need to assemble our mishkan.

Rabbi Joel Alter has led Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid since August 2018. His course on How to Read the Bible begins Feb. 5. The public is invited.