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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Mishkan as a Vehicle to Our Connection With God

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 21, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Shemot, Terumah

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Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of blessed memory, points out that prayer and prophecy are two sides of the same coin. While both involve dialogue between the human being and God, there is one major difference: In prophecy God initiates the dialogue, while in prayer, the human being is the initiator.

But how can the limited and finite person interface with the unlimited, infinite God when the distance is so great? Furthermore, how can one initiate contact when the chasm is so vast?

The mishkan (tabernacle), constructed by the Jews at God’s behest in the desert, plays a crucial role in addressing this very issue.

Clearly God does not command that the tabernacle be built for Himself. God is

everywhere and His Being fills the entire world, therefore a specific dwelling is no use for him. No wonder the text in our parsha states: “And they shall build for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (betokham),” (Exodus 25:8) rather than saying “that I may dwell in it (betokho).” Betokho would imply the mishkan can actually contain God.

The formulation of the text stresses that, through the mishkan, people would be able to more profoundly feel the presence of God. From this perspective the mishkan was not built for God but for am Yisrael. The mishkan offers us the potential to bridge the tremendous abyss between the human being, and God.

This makes the character of the mishkan very dependent. Rather than being intrinsically holy, its sanctity very much hinges upon how holy the people make it. A clear example of this is found in I Samuel (4:1-11). After suffering a harsh defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Jews conclude that the absence of the Ark was what led to this tragic result. They therefore decided to bring the Ark from Shiloh for surely in its presence they would be saved and succeed. However, even with the Ark, the result was the same.

The thinking of the Jews was that the Ark was God and with God present they could not be defeated. Their mistake was that the Ark was not God, it was rather the symbol of God. The symbol is dependent on one thing, the devotion of the people to God.

This is also the case with the everyday contemporary mishkan — the synagogue itself. If void of spiritual meaning, the synagogue becomes an empty shell, bricks without soul. Our challenge is to lift our houses of worship to the full potential of their spiritual heights to become a place where everyone is embraced — a place of study and transcendence where we reach beyond ourselves to touch the Divine in the hope that God will dwell betokheinu, among all of us.