Thursday, 07 Mar 2024

Written by Emily Carp LBC Rabbinical Student

This week’s parasha, Vayekhel, really goes into detail about God’s instructions for the Israelites regarding both the observance of Shabbat and the ways in which God should be honoured within the tabernacle. It’s an interesting dénouement to occur as the penultimate or final parsha of the book of Exodus, given how much drama has filled some of the other stories. Exodus, of course, begins with the Israelites fleeing from Egypt with so little time to prepare that their bread could not even rise. They’ve witnessed countless miracles: walking through the parted sea, seeing their enemies perish behind them, and being sustained by manna from heaven. Last week we heard how these miracles were not enough to reassure them to not abandon hope after Moses ascended Mount Sinai and was gone from the community for 40 days and 40 nights. Shrouded in clouds, with God appearing as thunder and lightning, fear and despair overcame the people and they constructed an idol from silver and gold. On learning this, God became so angry that Moses must use all of his persuasion to dissuade God from the path of complete annihilation and reconstruction from scratch. Finally, after Moses has descended, broken the stone tablets, and dealt with the community sufficiently, he reascends the mountain and a new covenant is drawn up between God and the Israelites. This parasha then begins when Moses has once again descended from the mountaintop, and has begun to relay to the people all that God has instructed him.

But the details are laid out for us in the Torah again, even though several parashot have been dedicated to relaying God’s instructions to Moses. It appears to me that there is something very significant in the material details of the building instructions for the mishkan, or tabernacle, that is being conveyed in this explanation. The tabernacle, we are told, is to be God’s dwelling place amongst the people. This is to be the place where God’s presence resides: at the heart of the community.

It must be considered that at this time, there could likely have been mutual distrust and uneasiness between God and the people. The people have surely experienced miracles, but also terrors and now in their second chance, it is easy to imagine a mixture of guilt and relief flooding through them. They came close to losing everything through their own actions but have been offered an olive branch. God, too, has experienced betrayal by the people and perhaps the disappointment that God’s community were so quick to turn their faces and hands away from the divine in a moment of despair. And so, the people, men and women, bring the most beautiful things that they own and can craft in order to give of themselves to God to the greatest extent that their heart was drawn to do. Together, they offer up all that they can in order to build the tabernacle: God’s home.

Home is an interesting and evocative concept. Whilst the human instinctive longing for a feeling of belonging that makes us feel ‘at home’ seems almost self-evident and unnecessary to expound upon, it is interesting to consider it alongside the idea of God also needing a home amongst God’s people. A 2017 study – “The Experienced Psychological Benefits of Place Attachment” – published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology discussed a concept identified as “place attachment” and explored how forming positive emotional attachments to physical locations is beneficial to our well-being. The study states “In general, place attachment bonds, while intact, are positively associated with quality of life, life satisfaction, and various other dimensions of well-being.” So perhaps, God too needs a home in which to form a place attachment?

Midrash Sifrei Devarim (346b) provides this further statement: “You are My witnesses, says Adonai, and I am God” (Isaiah 43:12). That is, when you are My witnesses, I am God, and when you are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God.” Perhaps God felt that the building of the Golden Calf described in Ki Tisa meant that the Israelites thought they no longer needed God’s specific divine presence and had a sort of identity crisis. In that moment of building an idol to worship in place of God, the people had stopped witnessing God. If the people no longer witnessing God means that God is not God, then perhaps a physical space dedicated within the heart of the community is intended to force the people to witness the divine at all times, so that God is able to retain Godliness. The converse fact is true too: the people cannot fear that God will leave them alone and leaderless again if God can be seen to be a consistent presence dwelling in the heart of the encampment.

But we no longer have the tabernacle. In the place of the mishkan and the temples that followed it, we now have our synagogues and our community groups. The ner tamid lamp above the ark functions as a physical reminder of the visual Godly presence that once hovered over the tabernacle. So too, when communities join together in prayer and service (to God or to each other) they evoke the divine presence even with no tangible physical reminder. In this time, spaces and places are created for the witnessing of God when people bring together their time, creativity, vision, financial support and hope in service of being together as a community. And so, even today, we invite God to dwell amongst us.

 

Emily Carp LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.