Shaya Cohen -


Why Do We Need The Tabernacle?

In the Torah, G-d is not found in nature, in anything He creates outside of mankind. So properly connecting with G-d is not achieved by communing with nature – the G-d of the Torah did not place any of His divinity in the natural world.

But G-d clearly does want to meaningfully connect with humanity. G-d commands the people:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell (sha’ken) among them.

Dwell among us? It is a lovely and poetic thought – but the concept is only skin-deep when assessed using this verse alone. But if we dig into the text and each of the words used that discuss the tabernacle (called mishkan or mikdash in the text, and this essay going forward), we’ll discover what the Torah actually means by this idea, and even where – and why – it was proposed by G-d. The answers surprised me, which means they are quite likely to also be a surprise to others!

Our first word is שכן, sha’ken, which is the word translated as “dwell.” This word is used in the text as “a dynamic coexistence or signpost.” It is the word used to described the angel guarding Eden, Japheth’s usurpation of Shem’s tents, Abram’s living with his allies, and Ishmael, the “wild ass of a man” living alongside his kin. It is even used when G-d tells Isaac not to leave the land because of famine, but to tough it out, sha’ken, in Canaan instead. This word, understood through its deployment, means much more than “dwell” – it is an active word, a far cry from merely “staying put.” Instead, sha’ken describes dissimilar parties occupying the same space with perhaps some shared goals. Sha’ken is not easy to do, and it is not all warm-and-fuzzies. There is tension, and the potential for conflict. G-d “dwelling” amongst the people is really an uneasy and challenging coexistence.

(And there is that connection to the Garden of Eden, suggesting that in some way the mikdash is a connection back to the beginning of Genesis. More on this later…)

Note that the idea of G-d coexisting with the people with a mikdash does not come in connection with Mount Sinai or the sin of the Golden Calf. Though it goes almost unnoticed, the mikdash is first mentioned in a non-sequitus verse found in the song that Moses leads the people in upon crossing the sea!

תְּבִאֵ֗מוֹ וְתִטָּעֵ֙מוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר נַחֲלָֽתְךָ֔ מָכ֧וֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֛ פָּעַ֖לְתָּ י-הָ֑ה מִקְּדָ֕שׁ אֲד-֖י כּוֹנְנ֥וּ יָדֶֽיךָ׃

You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your wellspring,
The place You made to dwell (shuv) in, G-d
The mikdash, O my lord, which Your hands established.

This is most odd! It is a single verse mention – while the detailed descriptions of the mikdash come many chapters later, after the revelation at Sinai. Why does Moses see the need for such an institution at this point?!

I think the question prompts a very simple answer: Moses had experienced G-d’s presence (the first time holiness, kedushah, is mentioned in the Torah) at the burning bush. And Moses grew a strong relationship with G-d from that episode. But Moses also knows from the demonstrated reluctance of the people up to the Exodus, that they lack the same conviction. Quite reasonably, the people lacked Moses’ faith because they lacked his same experience!

It is not natural, as we know from all of human history, for mankind to recognize the primacy of a non-corporeal deity. As G-d has no body, the next best thing is a source of connection and symbolic inspiration: guidance from a signpost (like the first sha’ken of the angel guarding Eden). Moses is calling, in the song as they left Egypt, for a national and permanent “burning bush” for the Israelites as a whole! In that way, G-d’s guidance can be accessible to all people, instead of being accessible only indirectly, through Moses.

The word for holiness, קּדש, kodesh, is first found in the burning bush. The second time is this verse at the sea. The connection is very strong: when Moses calls for a mikdash (same root as kodesh), he is calling for the burning bush’s holiness to be shared with the nation. In this way, the mikdash can become a touchstone – both for the Israelites and indeed, for all peoples. This verse is a promise of a spiritual beacon to the world.

The next key word is found in this same verse from the Song at the Sea: נַחל, nachal. This word is used in the text to mean two connected things: a source of water, and an inheritance. Isaac’s servants dig in the nachal to find a well; Rachel and Leah refer to the nachal that is their inheritance from Lavan. It is clear that a nachal is a source of sustenance. You can build a city or a civilization around such an asset, something that keeps on giving and supporting life.

Note that this verse, though, does not anticipate a moving mikdash; a nachal is fixed, not portable. Hence the ultimate promise of the mikdash, as anticipated at the Exodus, is for the permanent establishment of this spiritual beacon to be in a fixed place; the temporary version in the wilderness was for pragmatic expediency, not because a traveling mikdash is the ideal.

We know that it is meant to be fixed because the verse tells us so: “You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your spring (nachal)” which connects beautifully with our next word: הַ֣ר, meaning “mountain.”

On its face, a mountain and a spring are contradictions in terms – water is found in valleys, not on top of mountains. So when the verse says that G-d will establish the people on “the mountain of your wellspring,” we should understand it in a spiritual, not a physical, sense. And what is the symbolic meaning of a “mountain” in the Torah?

The first mentions of mountains are in the Flood episode – the Flood itself being a “rinse and repeat” event, cleansing the world and rebooting it from scratch. The flood served to scrub away all the evil that had accumulated, and restart. The mountains are connected to a complete renewal cycle for the world, just as Mount Sinai is connected to the spiritual renewal for all the people. Which then fits in beautifully with the nachal, the wellspring from which an entire civilization can be nurtured and grown.

The flood itself, nevertheless, was only a temporary event, just as was Mount Sinai. There is yet another word in the verse describing the mikdash that ties them all together, helping us see the overall picture of the purpose of the spiritual crown jewel of Judaism. That word is שׁב, shuv.

(for those who would like to see these words in context now, here is that same verse again):

You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your wellspring,
The place You made to dwell (shuv) in, G-d
The mikdash, O my lord, which Your hands established.

This word for “dwell” is not sha’ken (that word is used for the mikdash later in the text). This word, shuv, is used to mean a different set of things: the flood waters recede, the raven ceases to return, the angels return to Sarah, Avraham returns to his place, Avraham returns to settle the land, the anger of Esau against Jacob subsides.

Put all these together: G-d’s presence in the mikdash represents the return to a ground state, a place where people can go to become spiritually recentered, to find themselves in their connection to G-d and to holiness. The mikdash is the national burning bush. It is integrally linked to the meaning of mountain and wellspring: we come back to the source of spiritual connection in order to achieve spiritual cleansing and rebirth. The Torah even alludes to this earlier in the Torah, when G-d says to Jacob: “return (shuv) to your ancestors’ land—where you were born—and I will be with you.” When Jacob shuvs, he reconnects with his roots. When we shuv at the mikdash, we do the same, and enter into a regenerative state of dynamic coexistence sha’ken with G-d.

It is pretty surprising to realize that Moses, in a selfless act designed to reduce his own critical importance to the people, declared that G-d would make the mikdash for this purpose – and at the Splitting of the Sea.

There are just a few words left to explore. One of them is the word for “make”, oseh. Here is the verse, the one found later to describe sha’ken:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

This word, oseh is not generic. The first time it is used in the Torah is in creation:

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אלִ-ים֮ אֶת־הָרָקִיעַ֒ וַיַּבְדֵּ֗ל בֵּ֤ין הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ מִתַּ֣חַת לָרָקִ֔יעַ וּבֵ֣ין הַמַּ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר מֵעַ֣ל לָרָקִ֑יעַ

God made (oseh) the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse.

This creation is of the GAP – the space in the world in which the physical can exist! It is the space in which mankind (and all of nature) exists. If G-d had not made that gap, there would have been no room for us! Which means that the mikdash, using the word oseh, is also created space. We emulate G-d’s own creative act by craving out space for the mikdash, just as He did in Genesis.

The Torah is very interested in spaces and gaps. There is a concept that G-d has to limit Himself in order for us to exist (in the Torah we cannot survive direct contact). Not only do we exist in a spiritual and physical gap between the waters above and below, but G-d’s presence is found in what seems to be empty space. We most easily find G-d in the wilderness. And G-d’s voice in the mikdash comes from the gap between the two angels. Gaps are a reminder that things may well not be what they look like: instead, they may be what we hear. So when G-d commands the mishkan, he is saying, “make a space for me of holiness, so that I may coexist (sha’ken) in your midst.”

Oseh has a double meaning as well. Its second occurrence in the Torah is the creation of seed-bearing fruit – self-perpetuating sustenance and gifts from G-d to mankind. This is entirely compatible with the purpose of the mikdash we have explored above.

Just as G-d created the gap within which our world exists, we are to reciprocate by creating a gap for G-d to dwell within us. And just as G-d created the gift of fruit to sustain mankind, so, too, we create the gift of the mikdash to sustain both G-d and man in this dwelling together.

And lastly, we have the strengthened connection to Eden. That primary verse, “You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your wellspring” uses this word for “plant.” The word is first used here: “And G-d planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the Man.” Which means that the mikdash is also reminiscent of the first creation of a home for man. Moses is calling for G-d to plant anew, but this time a spiritual touchstone for the people, a place not of merely divine gift from On High, but instead a place of partnership and coexistence between man and the Creator.

p.s. The idea that we have to “make space” to coexist with someone else speaks directly to every successful marriage and relationship.

p.p.s. The Torah uses two words for the tabernacle: mikdash is what is mostly described above: what the place is for, and what it does for us. It is a burning bush available for the people, a wellspring for spiritual water, the base from which we can build a spiritual civilization.

By comparison the mishkan has sha’ken as its core word. It is about G-d’s dynamic coexistence (sha’ken as described above) – from flaming angel guiding or barring the way, to the uneasy coexistence of allies.

p.p.p.s. Though I did not think of it while researching this essay, it occurs to me that when I go to the place where the mikdash was built, the kotel in Jerusalem, I feel all of these things – the sense of inadequacy when in the presence of holiness, of almost-violent spiritual scrubbing and rebirth. I now have a glimmer of what the burning bush meant to Moses. We work and pray for the rebuilding of the mikdash speedily in our days!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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