The Mishkan: An Invitation to the Divine
BY PETER S. KNOBEL
P’kudei , the final parashah in the Book of Exodus, concludes with the completion of the Mishkan.
When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:33-38)
The Hebrew for the opening line of this concluding section is Vay’chal Mosheh et ham’lachah. This immediately calls to mind the familiar phrase from Genesis 2:2, Vay’chal Elohim bayom hash’vi’-i m’lachto asher asah, “On the seventh day, God had completed the work that had been done.” The completion of Creation and the completion of the sanctuary are inexorably linked. Commentators have suggested that the Mishkan, which was built from a divine pattern, could be understood as the world written small. According to B’reishit Rabbah 1:1, the architectural drawings of the world (and, possibly, of the Mishkan) may be found in the preexistent Torah. God completes Creation of the world as the dwelling place for human beings and Moses completes the Mishkan so God may dwell with the Israelites. Both the world and the Mishkan are sacred space. At the end of the story of Creation we are told:
Completed now were heaven and earth and all their host. On the seventh day, God completed the work that had been done, ceasing then on the seventh day from all the work that [God] had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, and ceased from all the creative work that God [had chosen] to do. (Genesis 2:1-3)
When God completes Creation, God blesses and sanctifies the seventh day and ceases creative work. Following God’s example, Israel blesses and sanctifies rest, and ceases creative work on Shabbat. Both divine and human work cease on Shabbat. There is an intimate communion between God and the Jew on Shabbat because both can be fully present to one another. If one truly engages with God, one will not be tempted to work on Shabbat but will seek to appreciate Creation and revel in liberation. In that scenario, the dos and don’ts will come naturally, but for most of us this is not fully possible. Therefore, we need guidelines to help us make decisions allowing us to be fully present to the Divine on Shabbat.
This level of connection with the Eternal also is found when the Divine Presence fills the Mishkan.With the completion of the Mishkan, God’s Presence fills it and Moses cannot enter. So long as God remains present there, the Israelite camp cannot continue its journey. When we live too fully in the Presence of God, neither our work nor God’s work can move forward. Only when the cloud lifts can Israel continue its journey. The beauty of the mystical experience is the intimacy of relationship of the mystic to God. The mystical union is a powerful encounter that destroys the distinction between the mystic and God. Only when God and mystic have become separated can the ongoing tasks of living continue.
The Jewish mystic did not live in a permanent state of union with the Divine, but returned to the ordinary world of separation and continued to perform mitzvot, albeit with a different sense of their meaning. Through performance of mitzvot, we imitate God to make the seventh day into Shabbat. If we do not rest, bless, and sanctify the seventh day, it remains just the seventh day and never becomes Shabbat for us. The Presence of God in the Mishkan was a reminder that even after a long absence (at least four hundred years in the case of exile in Egypt) God was present again. God’s Presence is episodic and unpredictable. But the regularity of Shabbat is an invitation to God to be present. The Mishkan represents more than a building: it is a normative religious structure that is an invitation to the Divine Presence.
Our synagogues, siddurim, and machzorim strive to be “Mishkan” vehicles to bring the Divine Presence into our lives. But they also remind us that we must live in a created but imperfect world where we are cocreators and partners of the Divine on a daily basis in the ongoing perfection of the world. We are constantly challenged to see the ordinary as an opportunity toward sanctification. The experience of God on Shabbat and in the Mishkanim of our lives and our community gives us hope and courage, and a vision of the possibility of a perfection that is not yet realized. “We see that our years are more than grass that withers, more than flowers that fade. They weave a pattern of life that is timeless and unite us with a world that is from end to end the abode of Your love and the venture of Your glory” (Gates of Repentance [New York: CCAR, 1996], p. 158).
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.