Encountering God in the Tabernacle
This week’s Torah portion is the first of four Torah portions that discuss the building of the Tabernacle and the vessels within. The details are amazing – the exact dimensions of the building and of each vessel, the materials used for both inner and outer parts, the shapes, the designs and the exact purpose of each item. And it is these precise descriptions which have enabled artists over the years to paint beautiful pictures of the Tabernacle and its vessels, as well as to construct models of the entire Tabernacle complex. One such model is on display at Tel Shiloh, the actual site where the Tabernacle stood in its permanent format, for 369 years, after the Children of Israel entered Israel and completed the initial conquest of the land.
The portion begins, however, with basic instructions which form the backdrop for this massive construction project. The first instruction refers to the resources for the project:
“Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.” (Exodus 25:1)
Scripture then goes on to specify that the contributions will be of precious metals, beautiful fabrics, leather skins, oil, spices, and precious stones. Later on, when Scripture specifies how this commandment was fulfilled, it specifically mentions that both men and women donated items to the project, including items that had been woven by the women themselves. (Exodus 35:21 – 29)
The inclusion of everyone and the encouragement of each to donate as his heart prompts him are what make this project so special. It is not the Tabernacle of a selected few, of an elite class or wealthy few, but the Tabernacle of the people. And, as such, it is every person who is commanded to do something, to contribute in some way towards its beauty and completion.
Further on in this introductory section, is a second instruction that reveals more about the purpose of the Tabernacle: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). Here, the word “Mikdash,” is used, literally a temple, although the translation uses the word sanctuary instead. It is the same word used in Chronicles and Ezekiel when referring to the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 44:1, 1 Chronicles 22:19), although in the book of Kings, the word House of God is used instead. Indeed, the instructions listed here form the basis for the construction of the more permanent Temple in Solomon’s time. The Tabernacle is a temporary, transportable structure, perfectly suited for the desert and later adapted for the more permanent Shiloh. But it is only when King David conquers Jerusalem and then purchases the threshing floor from the Jebusite that the stage is set for the construction of a temple on the place “that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name and make His habitation there” (Deuteronomy 12:5).
But God says something amazing about the purpose of the Temple or Tabernacle. It is not a place where God will dwell within its walls. It is a place which enables God to dwell within “their midst,” in the midst of the Children of Israel. The Tabernacle, then, unlike pagan places of worship, is not conceived of as a physical structure meant to provide a home on earth for a god. It is a place which facilitates the relationship between God and His children.
This is reinforced by the instructions regarding the Holy Ark. “And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:21-22). The ark, with its covering and cherubim is a meeting place between Moses and God, and, in turn, enables God to communicate with His people, through Moses.
The sacrifices and rituals that take place in and around the Tabernacle are all about man meeting God. The rituals involve very physical acts, of slaughter, incense, and the lighting of the menorah. But they enable man, a very physical being, to come in contact with God who has no physical being, who has no form, and cannot be seen or felt. God would never be confined to a physical structure. But the physical structure serves man’s need to meet God on this earth.
This, then, is the basic idea behind the Tabernacle and both ideas are represented in the very first verses of the Torah portion. It is a place in which all of Israel must have a share and it is a place which enables humanity, every man, woman and child, to encounter God.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office