This week’s parsha – Terumah – and the many parshiyot that follow focus on creating a Mishkan, a Sanctuary, a sanctified space, a dwelling place for God. The idea that a space can not only be sanctified, but even contain – as it were – the Divine presence, is beyond our ability to comprehend. As King Solomon said when he dedicated theTemple: “Will God indeed dwell on the Earth? Behold, the Heavens and Heaven of Heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?” (Kings I, 8:27).
Nevertheless, as human beings we need to opportunity to connect to God and to feel God’s presence, and thus God makes God’s presence available and gives us means – sacrifices in Temple times, prayer today – to make this connection. The concept of a Mishkan, then, must be preceded by a concept of a this-worldly manifestation of God’s presence. In kabbalistic literature, this aspect of God which connects to our world is called Shekhina, a word derived from shakhen, to dwell, the same as the root of Mishkan, which literally translates as a dwelling place. It is also this word, shakhen, which is the root of the verb used in this parasha to describe God causing God’s presence to be among the Jewish People: “And you shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell, vi’shakhanti, in their midst.” (Shemot 25:8).
Now, in the Torah, indeed in all of Tanakh, God’s presence is never referred to as Shekhina. Rather, God’s presence is manifest through something called kevod Hashem, the Glory of God, perhaps best understood as some intense shining light. It is this Glory of God that appears to the People at those moments of encounter, during their time in the Wilderness. It is this Glory which appears in a cloud on Har Sinai (Shemot 24:16-17), it was this Glory that passed before Moshe when God revealed Godself to him (Shemot 33:18, 22), and it was this Glory that filled the Mishkan, at the culmination of the Book of Shemot, when all the work is done and the Mishkan is erected:
Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.
And Moshe was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the Glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.
What is also to be noted, is that this Glory always appears in a cloud, as it did on Har Sinai and in the Mishkan. The shining can only be seen obscurely, through a lens, darkly. God’s presence cannot be directly gazed upon, it is enveloped in mystery, both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. It was in this way that God made God’s presence manifest on earth, accessible to the People, without making God of this earth.
It was this reality of the Glory of God that had appeared on Har Sinai, that made it possible for the building of a Mishkan, of a place where this Glory, in the cloud, could dwell. How is King Solomon’s question answered? How can God dwell on the earth? Because God has allowed God’s presence to be experienced by the Glory of God which dwells in a cloud. Thus, King Solomon preceded his dedication of the Mishkan, with these words: “The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness” (Kings I, 8:2). It was this reality – this paradox, that allows for the paradox of our parsha, the building of a Mishkan, of a place wherein the Divine Presence dwells.
As physical beings, most of us cannot relate to God without some physical thing to relate to. What do we think of when we pray? Perhaps we think of the Aron HaKodesh, or perhaps of a cloud-like essence that fills the earth, or perhaps of a shining, or perhaps even of an old, bearded man sitting on a cloud. We know these images are false, yet we cannot help but to use them as a way of relating. As humans, we need the physical. And, hence, the Torah describes God in human terms, with anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms, and gives the People a physical manifestation – not of God, but of God’s presence – and give them a physical structure where they can encounter that presence.
This need for the physical can, of course, be satisfied more directly by idolatry – by representing God as a physical thing. This is why the Torah must time and again warn against it, because its attraction, for a religious individual seeking a connecting with her God, is so very strong. Thus, it was exactly this that the Torah had to warn against immediately following the Revelation at Sinai:
And the Lord said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the people ofIsrael, You have seen that I have talked with you from Heavens.
You shall not make of Me (or “in My likeness”). Neither gods of silver, nor gods of gold shall you make for yourselves.
After all they had experienced – the thunder and lightning, the Glory and the cloud, even God’s very voice – after they had experienced God’s very presence with all their senses, they would want to continue that direct connection. The temptation of using idols – physical representations – must have been great indeed. The Torah, however, will have none of it. Rather, they can use the physical to connect to God: “And if an altar of stone you shall make for Me…” and they can create a house of God, but they must never corrupt the essence of God.
As I once wrote in a related context:
What is the difference between the Mishkan and the Golden Calf? A house has walls, boundaries, which delimit and structure the space inside. The Calf is not the empty space, it is the thing itself.
When we project only ourselves into the world, we make a Golden Calf. When we project our image of the other into the world, we make a Golden Calf. When we project our image of God into the world, we make a Golden Calf.
When we labor, instead, to structure a space, we allow the other to enter, to allow God to enter, we allow true encounter to occur… Only when we stop our efforts… stop our projecting of ourselves, only when we open a space, does the other enter. In such a space, the other is met. In such a space, God is met.
The challenge we face today, of course, is how to continue to relate meaningfully to God without the Glory of God, without the Cloud, without altars and animal sacrifices. There are those – such as Rambam and Yishayahu Leibowitz – who are happy to leave all this physicality of the religious behind. As philosophers, they are acutely aware of how distant the physical is from God, and counsel other ways of relating – primarily through theology and intellectual apprehension. This approach can also be seen, perhaps, in the Lithuanian-influenced yeshiva world, where connection to God is achieved through (or replaced by) intellectual Torah study.
There are others, however, who bemoan the loss of this more felt and experienced connection. Rav Kook, in fact, said that when – according to Talmudic legend, the Great Assembly destroyed the desire for idolatry, they did what was necessary, but they robbed the world of its religious passion. When one feels no need to connect directly, one lacks a religious sense of the presence of God. It was the challenge of the ancient Israelites to channel their religious fervor away from idolatry and into more acceptable religious acts – not to build a Golden Calf, but to build aTemple. Likewise, according to these more experiential or religiously-minded figures, it is the challenge of us, today, to reawaken our religious passions, to have our service of God be more than just intellectual, to try to seek out God’s presence in a world where God, rather than being felt too much and represented too much, is felt too little, is experienced too infrequently. And it is our challenge to work to do this without the Glory of God, without the cloud, without the Temple.
It is up to each one of us to determine which path we want to follow in our service of God. And for those of us who choose to try to connect experientially and religiously, we must start the critical work of finding the means to create this connection in the world that we experience today. Let those of us of this camp begin this work as individuals, and begin to invest together – as a community – to being to make our Judaism not just one of observance, but also one of religiosity.