Once there was a king who had an only daughter, whom he loved dearly. A prince from another country came and the king gave his daughter to him in marriage. When it was time for them to return to the prince’s country, the king said to him, “My daughter, whose hand I have given you, is my only child. I cannot bear to be parted from her, yet I cannot ask you to leave her here with me as she is now your wife. However, I will ask you to do me a favour. Wherever you go to live, please build an extra room so that I can come and stay with you.” Thus God said to Israel, “I have given you my Torah, from which I cannot part, but which I also cannot tell you not to take. So I must make a request that wherever you go, make a house for Me, so that I may live there.”
While this is rather a nice midrash, it clearly doesn’t deal with the contradictions that we find elsewhere in the Bible. For example, in the Book of Isaiah we find the verse, ‘The heaven is My throne and the earth My footstool – where is the house that you may build for Me? and where the place of My rest?’ And King Solomon, having just constructed the Temple, remarks, ‘Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built.’
So what other explanation can there be for this idea of God dwelling in the portable sanctuary that Moses has been commanded to make? Two hebrew words seem to be used interchangeably for this dwelling place; one, mikdash, we translate as ‘sanctuary’; mishkan, the other, is usually translated as ‘tabernacle’. Mishkan comes from the same root as the word which God uses for ‘I may live’, shakhanti, and this is the root from which we also get the word Sh’khinah, a name for God, which denotes God’s presence, the imminence or nearness of God. Mikdash comes from the root k’d’sh, which we often translate as ‘holy’, but which actually has the meaning of distinct or separate. The Kodesh Kodashim was the place in the centre of the Temple, in which the High Priest was only allowed to go once a year on Yom Kippur.
It appears, therefore, that these two names for the sanctuary/tabernacle demonstrate different aspects of our relationship with God. The mishkan has God very close to us, whereas the mikdash recognises that at times God may be separate or distant from us. But that still doesn’t explain the why. Why God felt the need for a place to dwell among the Israelites. The medieval French Jewish commentator, Rashi, said that the chapter in which God asks Moses to build the sanctuary comes out of order in the Torah. This isn’t such a heretical statement as it sounds. A number – albeit not all – of the commentators were prepared to accept the principle of ein mukdam v’ein m’uchar baTorah, literally ‘there is no earlier and no later in Torah’, in other words the sequence of stories in the Torah is not always chronological. Rashi determined that this story had to follow the episode of the golden calf. It was a sign, he believed, that God had forgiven the Israelites for that and so God was prepared to let them build the mikdash, which would house the Tablets of Stone containing the Ten Utterances. Moreover, Rashi thought that it was a recognition by God of human frailty, that they needed some physical imagery in order to maintain their belief and trust in God. So it was not that God needed a place, rather that God saw the people’s need for that.
And what about us today, do we no longer require physical imagery in order to maintain our belief and trust? After all, it’s been more than nineteen hundred years since the destruction of the Second Temple. Perhaps we feel God’s presence here in the Synagogue or maybe we use the Torah scrolls or other ritual articles, tallit or t’fillin or whatever, as our imagery. Or maybe we sophisticates of the twenty-first century don’t require such signs, but is it any co-incidence that fewer and fewer people believe in God these days? It is much more difficult to come to terms with the transcendent God rather than the imminent God.
The God of the mikdash, the home of the Tablets of Stone, the place that opened its doors just once a year, distant and separate from us is considerably harder to relate to. To reach out to that essence of God, transcendent, apparently uninvolved with our day-to-day lives, disinterested, not hearing our call, not answering our prayers, a distant force, seems to be a futile attempt. But is the God of the mishkan really lost to us? Can we not still reach the imminent God, that essence of God which is near to us, which recognises our frailty, which knows our needs, which is prepared to dwell among us? Is there still the possibility that God may be available to us?
Let’s return to God’s words in the Torah. The text reads not just shakhanti, that I may live, but shakhanti b’tocham, that I may live among them. But the word b’tocham can also mean within them. The Sh’khinah, the presence of God, does not need to rest in a sanctuary in the wilderness, or in the Temple in Jerusalem, or in Synagogues all over the world. Better than that, it dwells within each of us, if we are prepared to let it in, if we make the effort, if we open our hearts to it. The kabbalists say that d’vekut, communion with God, the highest step on the spiritual ladder, is the linking of the human soul with that element of God that is the Sh’khinah. But whereas for many mystics, this can only be achieved through a state of ecstasy, the founders of Chasidism, the Reform Movement of its day, said that the positive way to d’vekut was through prayer, study and good deeds – a way open to all of us.
Rabbi Maurice Michaels
Ordained LBC 1996
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.