Republished from May 2014
In the blessings to be bestowed on the people if they follow God’s commandments and observe God’s laws—the rains will come in their appointed season, the land will bring forth its fruit, there will be peace in the land, and the people will be fruitful and multiply—it finishes with a bizarre verse “I will place my Tabernacle (mishkani) in your midst, and My soul will not abhor you” (Vayikra 26:11). What are we to make of this anti-climax? Of course God will not abhor us! We are living a fully religious life and are worthy of all these blessings. Why should this blessing—if that’s what it is—be necessary?
The answer is in the first half of the verse: things may change once the Tabernacle is in our midst, not necessarily for the better. We are lacking as long as we are without a mishkan, a structure of kedusha. We have not yet achieved our full religious potential, and we must continue to strive and reach. Without a mishkan, we will live our lives driven by kedoshim ti’hiyu, you shall become holy, striving to better actualize the divine within ourselves, never able to reach our ultimate goal.
Once God’s mishkan is in our midst, however, we may think we have arrived. There is no striving left to do. With this attitude comes great danger, for we will not stop to take stock of ourselves. We will not ask if there is more we could do, are we doing everything properly, or are we being properly responsive to the world around us. We will become religiously complacent and self-satisfied and come to believe we are the only ones with the truth. Our sole mission will be to protect the truth and our mishkanim—concretized embodiments of God’s presence—against defilement and impurity. We will divide the world into insiders and outsiders, with outsiders seen as no consequence, and at worst dangerous or evil.
The mishkan in our midst is a two-edged sword, a blessing with very real risk. We can understand why the verse says, “And my soul will not abhor you.” Not a consequence of what preceded, but a second blessing. Even with the mishkan in your midst, you will not become a people abhorrent to God, who have abandoned true kedusha and become so self-righteously satisfied with their own religiosity. You will succeed at having God’s mishkan while remaining true to God’s Torah.
How will this be achieved? The answer is in the verse: “And I will walk (vi’hithalakhti) in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12). God will move among us. We will experience God as a moving presence, constantly urging us to act, respond, and not stay still. When God is moving, you know God is near, but you will never know exactly where God is. The uncertainty keeps us striving, looking inward to take stock of ourselves and where we are, and looking out to seek that connection with God’s presence.
Hithalekh occurs multiple times in Breishit in the context of the human relationship to God. Adam and Eve hear the sound of God moving about, mit’haleikh, in the garden. The sense of an imminent encounter with God forces them to hide out of shame; they look at themselves honestly, knowing God will soon be looking. Becoming righteous is defined as walking before God in many instances: “And Hanokh walked before God” (Gen. 5:22); “Before God did Noah walk” (Gen. 6:9); “God appeared to Avram and said to him: Walk before Me and be perfect” (Gen. 17:1)
If we see God’s presence in our midst as static, then our religiosity will be static. If we see God as moving in our midst, then we will seek God out. We will seek opportunities to grow, to reach God, to understand what it is that we must do in the world. The relationship will be dynamic; it will be alive. Hence the verse that begins with, “I will walk in your midst,” concludes with, “and I will be your God and you will be my people.”
The Orthodox community has fallen short of this vision of a vibrant, dynamic religiosity. Our various mishkanim, institutionalized embodiments, often lead to stasis, complacency, and religious self-satisfaction. Only by reintroducing the mandate to mithalekh—to move, grow, and respond to the outside world and contemporary challenges—can we hope to maintain a true relationship with God. Only a religious vision such as this can allow us to connect to all those who have become alienated, who have been told, implicitly or explicitly, that they have no place in our mishkan, they are threats, they are not worthy and not wanted. Only such a religious vision will bring life and growth to those committed to Torah and mitzvot but who see in religion only the forms, only preserving and protecting rather than moving and growing.
We must be prepared to look inward to see what must be changed, and outward to see what must be done to bring the light of Torah to the larger Jewish world. May we have God’s help to continue on this path and have hatzlacha in all we do, so we may be blessed to see fulfilled in our days the blessing, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”