Running With the Weight of Gold — Letters to a young man
22: The Tabernacle Stands
Jerusalem — 10 March 2019
Dear D –
This week (Exodus 38:21–40:38) we complete reading the Book of Exodus, as the Tabernacle is erected in the wilderness for the first time (40:17.) The rabbis read the work of the Tabernacle as a replay of the Creation itself. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the Tabernacle is Order emerging from Chaos. In the episode of the Golden Calf, we observed that the push to impose organized religion opens a society to all the abuses and excesses of that institution. Now, when the Tabernacle stands, the Torah shows us the corrective to those excesses.
The Hebrew word for Tabernacle is Mishkan, a form of the word “to dwell.” It is God’s earthly dwelling. A basic principle of Torah analysis is to approach a word by viewing that word in its first occurrence. Contexts accrete, and words used repeatedly in the Torah acquire layers of nuance. The word Mishkan carries generations of meaning.
Here are the mentions of the word, in its different forms, in sequence, leading up to the Tabernacle:
Genesis 3:24. In its first appearance, “God banished Adam and ‘made to dwell’ the cherubim at the east of the Garden…’” The first and eternal Exile.
Genesis 9:27. The only words ever spoken by Noah: “May God extend Japheth, and ‘he shall dwell’ in the tents of Shem, and Canaan will be their slave.” Noah’s curse sets up the strife between the descendants of Shem — Abraham and the people of Israel — and the children of Canaan.
Genesis 14:13. “A fugitive fled and came and told Abraham, who ‘dwelt’ in Elonei Mamre…” the place in which God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself.
Genesis 16:12. “And [Ishmael] ‘shall dwell’ in the face of all his brothers…” Ishmael lives in constant opposition to his cousins, but is also blessed as Abraham’s son, and twelve tribes come from him. Ishmael’s descendants (Gen. 25:18) “Dwelt” from Havilah to Shur.
Genesis 26:2. “God appeared to Isaac and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; “dwell” in the Land…’”
Genesis 35:22. “And it was when Israel ‘dwelt’ in the land…”
Genesis 49:13. “Zebulon ‘shall dwell’ by the seashore…”
After the expulsion from Eden, all these passages relate specifically to the Abrahamic destiny. This verb ‘to dwell’ is absent in the narrative of Esau, as it is from the story of Lot. This Hebrew root — to dwell — forms a thematic thread binding the concepts of Exile and the ultimate promise of the land of Canaan. (In the later history of the Tribes [Judges 1:30] Zebulon, the only son of Jacob to be given the word ‘dwell,’ fails to drive the Canaanites out. The Canaanites overpower them, and Zebulon ends up paying tribute to Canaan — Noah’s curse come full circle.)
Noah curses Canaan, then blesses his son Shem — Abraham’s ancestor. But a blessing, or a curse, is only a condition. In order for a blessing to take hold, all its elements must be applied consciously. Blessings are there for the taking. But it is not enough to contemplate the blueprint of the Tabernacle and fabricate its components. We must team together and assemble and erect the structure. Then we must put it into use. And we must use and preserve it every day, each of us playing our unique role. Each day the lamps must be lit and tended, the service performed. Even Eternity only exists by our involvement.
And if the Tabernacle is a replay of Creation, then which creation story? God creates at the beginning of Genesis. But then God destroys the world, and the story of Noah is a second Creation.
Perhaps the revelation at Sinai is a replay of the first creation and the Tabernacle is a re-enactment of Noah and the Flood. Throughout Midrashic and rabbinic literature, water symbolizes Torah. God’s teachings flow. Torah brings life. Every part of the stream is connected to each other part, and all connected eternally to the source. It is a beautiful and rich metaphor. But what happens when God’s revelation is too much for us to bear?
The Israelites beseech Moses, “Let God not speak to us, lest we die!” (20:15–16.) Says the Midrash. the Israelites heard the first two Sayings — “I am the Lord your God…” and, “You shall have no other gods before me…” — and then they literally died, so that God had to restore their souls. They then withdrew and only Moses heard the other eight Sayings, which he reported to the people. These two first Sayings — to accept God, and not to accept other gods — are positive and negative. They embrace the whole Torah. They are Good and evil. Light and darkness — a poetic reflection of God’s first act of creation. The Revelation at Sinai is a literary evocation of Creation.
The waters of the Flood symbolize what happens when we are faced with too much Revelation. We cannot bear to look directly into one another’s eyes; how much less the very face of God? In order for God’s message to be properly received, it must be filtered, broken up. To give over all God’s wisdom at once is to swamp humanity — figuratively, in the form of organized religion with its rules and exhortations; literally in the case of the Flood.
Noah survives in his Ark — the same word used in English for the cabinet in which the Tablets are stored at the center of the Tabernacle. In Hebrew, Noah’s Ark is called Teva, which means a box, but it also means “a word.” By limiting God’s presence to a tiny space at the heart of the complex structure of the Tabernacle, God can communicate with us. If God communicates one word at a time, we may be able to assimilate it, and we may possibly hear God’s message clearly. When God’s message is dumped on us all at once, we drown. In the second Creation of the Noah story, the Ark is tossed on the wild waters of the unleashed Torah until chaos’ own fury is spent and the buffeted Ark is freed; in the Tabernacle, the chaos of Torah is contained within the Ark, and only its invisible emanation is allowed out, and only in a tightly circumscribed space.
The immense power of organized religion often does great harm. A gun can be used to defend, or to murder. Once we hold it in our hand, the temptation is to fire it. We think our religion supports us and that we are thus in the right, and we do not realize that it is we who are blindly in its grasp. Organized religion constantly exhorts us to return to a more pristine state, to a pure relationship with God. For some this means rebuilding a temple. For others it means re-establishing an ancient form of government — or perhaps a form of anarchy. But regardless of the world-view, organized religion makes of us, its adherents, monsters bent on tearing apart the existing world in order to make it better. Organized religion makes of its adherents a swarm of locusts. It unleashes a flood.
We must acknowledge that this world is broken. Yet what hubris to believe that we hold the key to repairing it! We, who could not even withstand the voice of God at Mt. Sinai, we are going to impose on the rest of humanity a universal solution for peace and harmony? Yes, the world is broken. But so are we. And it is precisely in our awareness of our own brokenness that we must seek God’s wisdom. Within the protective confines of our religious organization, let us reveal our own defects and our fears. It is not in our abilities that we achieve greatness, but through exploring our own weaknesses. It is precisely where we lack, that we must invite others to support us. The Tabernacle only stands when each of its components fits properly with all the others. The strength of the organization is that all members are familiar, that we may be less threatened by reaching out to those closest to us. And it is through reaching out to those who are most like us, that we can train ourselves to reach out to those who are most unlike us. We must train ourselves to use our unique abilities for the good of others. Of all others. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The waters of the Flood also symbolize birth. Of rebirth, through God’s compassion. The Torah lists compassion as God’s primary attribute — and note that the Hebrew word for compassion, Rachamim, comes from the word for “womb.” Compassion is what allows us to be reborn. To be made anew. Let us not use our religion as a cudgel to beat the world into submission. God, in God’s endless compassion, agrees to be confined to the tiniest of spaces. As the rabbis say, “Where you find God’s greatness, there also you find God’s humility.”
If the Tabernacle teaches us anything, it is that our own religion, our own personal faith, our own spiritual quest — all of this is but the tiniest part of the aspirations of the entire human race — past, present, and future. We heard only two of God’s Words — I am your God, and Have no other gods. That should be enough. Rather than seeking to dominate each other, let it be our mission to reach out with compassion. Wherever we can, let us use our gifts to relieve suffering in this world.
The structure of the Tabernacle is precise. God is confined to the narrow emptiness between the statues of the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:22.) The word “to dwell” first appears when God stations cherubim at the gates of Eden, to keep Adam and Eve out. The cherubim now return to God’s “dwelling” as the gate providing access to God. Every gate is either a passageway into Exile, or a way to Redemption. A wall to keep others out, or the doorway to invite the stranger in. Everything in the world of space, time and motion exists in dual aspects. Torah provides the way to discernment. It is we who must decide.
Yours for a better world