To the casual reader, the Torah can seem like little more than an odd ancient historical document, documenting the perspective of a tribal people wandering in the wilderness.
But a lot depends on our assumptions. If we, for example, see the Torah (the Five Books) as a single document with a common theme, then a great many things “pop out” of the text.
One example: In the Six Days of Creation, the Torah tells us that of the separation of the waters above and below, and of the light from the darkness. Uniquely for G-d’s creations, the Torah does not tell us that these separations were “good.”
Indeed, one could read every subsequent act of creation as a means for G-d to “fix” the previous not-good “oops”: plants reach upward, animals reach even more upward, and finally mankind is created, capable of spanning the gap between earth and heaven, connecting physicality and spirituality. And with that, G-d stops creating. The rest, seemingly, is up to us.
Fast forward… all the way to the Book of Exodus, where G-d is describing the home that we are supposed to build, so that He might “dwell among us.” And look specifically at the items that G-d tells us are supposed to be tamid, perpetual. What are the items that are necessary for a home that is suitable for G-d?
We have the “perpetual light”, the ner tamid (Ex. 27:20). What does it do? Using pressed olives, the perpetual light achieves two goals that tie back to the first days of creation: by taking the physical oil and converting it to light, we are taking something that is material and converting it into energy: the light, like the burning bush, shows the fusion of matter and energy, the connection between the waters above and below, as well as the spreading of light into darkness. Which helps explain why the light in Lev. 24:2 is described as being an olah, an elevation. The perpetual light mitigates G-d’s own acts of separation.
There are also perpetual sacrifices: a pair of lambs, and a meal-offering. If one recalls that plants and animals are described as being created on subsequent days, it is easy to see that when we offer both flora and fauna in the Mishkan, we are also furthering the goals of those first days of creation: we take from living samples of the natural physical world, and we elevate them by offering them to G-d. We acknowledge that our purpose in this world is to engage in actively lifting the natural world, making our lives and our world connected to spirituality. (The concept is connected to many other biblical commandments as well (like the grass and blood of Passover)).
But there is so much more. The Torah continually reminds us of parallels between G-d’s home and our homes, our marriage to G-d, and our relationships with each other. And this is where the descriptions of the Mishkan come alive in telling us what, specifically, we are supposed to be doing in our own homes, in our own marriages.
The first use of the word tamid, “perpetual”, references the showbread in the Mishkan (Ex. 25:30). Why bread? Perhaps in part because when Adam and Eve are banished, G-d tells them, “By the sweat of your brow you should eat bread.” Bread represents hard work. More than that: bread requires more joint effort than any other thing mankind could make in the ancient world. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth, it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled, the resulting flour aged. Only then can water be added, and bread baked. Bread, unlike, for example, refined metal, required both active natural and human involvement throughout the process. In other words, bread represents partnership. The kind of partnership that forms the very best marriages, where both partners are fully committed, each contributing toward a common goal.
In G-d’s home, as in ours, it is that kind of partnership for the sake of holiness that makes the home fit for the divine presence.
What are the other perpetual elements in the Mishkan? Lev. 6:6 tells us of a perpetual fire on the altar. The symbolism in this case is quite clear: the fire looking for an offering represents the desire that we have for each other. G-d seeks man, and man seeks G-d, just as man and woman cleave together.
There is only one remaining perpetual element that we are commanded to provide in G-d’s home: the burning incense (Ex. 30:8). The incense represents the importance of mystery in any relationship. Relationships do not thrive when people view each other with clinical clarity. Instead, there should always be something that blurs our senses, perpetuating the mysterious and even intoxicating unknown. While this sounds very abstract, I suggest that married couples who have known each other for many decades often never fully understand the other: and that is a good thing. In any marriage, even one that has persisted and thrived for many years, there is always room to learn and grow.
In the mishkan, the perpetual incense not only ensures that there is mystery, but it also dispels even the illusion of clarity. Over a lifetime of love and service, we cannot fully know G-d, any more than we can fully know each other. And the incense ensures that we stay aware of it.
So in a nutshell, G-d’s home is both a reminder of our mission in this world, and of the essential components of a home fit for a good and holy marriage: partnership, desire, and mystery all together pledged toward the common cause of completing G-d’s creation of the world.