Making room for the Holy One, in ancient times and now


Exodus 25:1-27:19

I Kings 5:26-6:13

The Torah reading for today, the entire Torah reading, details the instructions for how to build a tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the children of Israel set up at each of their stops on the way to the Promised Land — and then in the Promised Land itself.

Who needed this sanctuary?

The only rational answer: Our ancestors needed it. The tabernacle served a purpose for human beings, and reading about it serves a purpose for us. We certainly do not want to say that God needs the tabernacle.

Ancient rabbis understand the story just this way. They imagine our ancestors' despair after the Golden Calf incident, and their joy at receiving the commandment to build the tabernacle (Shemot Rabbah 33:3): "The congregation of Israel sleeps" in despair on account of the Golden Calf, having lost hope of achieving divine favor. But "the Holy Blessed One knocks to awaken them — 'And you shall take me an offering'" (Ex. 25:2). The tabernacle signifies forgiveness for the Golden Calf.

The midrash makes this claim, even though the Golden Calf incident appears later in the Torah (Ex. 32 and 33). Rashi believes this example illustrates the rule that the Torah does not always maintain chronological order (on Ex. 31:14). The children of Israel build the Golden Calf when Moses delays in coming down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 32:1), about 40 days after the revelation. The Torah presents the command to construct the tabernacle without assigning a date (Ex. 25:8). Rashi follows the Midrash in assigning the command to 80 days later, on Yom Kippur (on Ex. 33:11); the tabernacle serves as atonement for the Golden Calf.

It also serves as a replacement. Only after the people had demonstrated that their need for a physical representation, the Golden Calf, did the Holy One consent to allow them a tabernacle (Abravanel). The tabernacle fills a human need, for we have difficulty with the abstract worship of an invisible Deity.

You can find this answer to our question presented in Nehama Leibowitz's "Studies in Shemot." She concludes her article with the sages who find the tabernacle meaningful in its own terms, no mere concession to human needs (see Ramban on Leviticus 1:9). I have found a Midrash that goes further, that boldly answers that the tabernacle, and perhaps our own modern synagogues, serve the needs of the Creator.

The ancient rabbis teach: There exists merchandise in which the seller gets sold along with the merchandise. Said the Holy Blessed One, "I sold you my Torah, and," as if it were possible, "I am sold along with her." As it says, "And you shall take me an offering" (Ex. 25:2).

A parable: "A king who had an only daughter…one of the kings comes and takes her. He requests to go to his land and to take his wife. He [the father] says to him [the other king]: "My daughter whom I have given to you is an only one. To separate from her, I am not able. To tell you not to take her, I am not able, for she is your wife. But this favor do for me: Any place that you go, make a little room for me, that I may dwell with you, for I am not able to leave my daughter."

"Thus says the Holy Blessed One to Israel: 'I have given you the Torah. To separate from her, I am not able. To say to you, "Do not take her," I am not able. Rather, wherever you go, make one little house for me, that I may dwell in it,' as it says: 'Make me a tabernacle'" (Ex. 25:8) (Shemot Rabbah 33:1).

We, who have the Torah, need to make room for visits from the God who loves this Torah.