an antique drawing of a great cloud hovering over the mishkan with israelites worshipping
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness" from the 1890 Holman Bible

A divine-human partnership to build a more sacred world

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Exodus 25:1-27:19
I Kings 5:26-6:13

I never cease to be amazed by the linguistic genius of the Torah. Every word of the text brings with it so many different layers of meaning, from the simple (peshat) to the more poetic and homiletic (midrash).

There is tremendous value in trying to understand each and every word in a given story. When you start comparing parallel language in one part of the Torah to other passages with similar word usage and structure, you can get a newfound appreciation for just how brilliant God’s guidebook is. The story of the building of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, is one such story that contains its own richness, and at the same time, embodies an elevated level of meaning when compared to the story of the creation of the world.

Toward the beginning of the portion, God gives Moses and the Israelites a daunting task: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Why does God need us to build a sanctuary, especially if God’s presence is not isolated to any particular space? While there are many ways to interpret this building project, I would argue that this story had a different goal in mind: to help us appreciate a divine-human partnership for creating a more sacred world.

Renowned Israeli Bible scholar and commentator Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, suggests that the similar language used in describing the creation of the world (Genesis 1-2) and the Mishkan (which takes up more than half of the book of Exodus), was not at all a coincidence.

She talks about the significance of the number seven in Jewish tradition (e.g. seven days of creation, seven circles and blessings at a wedding, the seven days of shiva). Leibowitz quotes 11th century French commentator Rashi, who points out that the linguistic significance of “creating” exists through the seven parallel words and phrases that are shared between the creation and Mishkan stories (“made,” “six days,” “the seventh day,” “and God finished,” “and God saw,” “and behold,” “and God blessed”).

Rashi writes: “The Lord created heaven and earth and all therein for [human beings] to dwell in, and created them in six days and rested on the seventh day. Similarly, Moses was summoned on the seventh day to the Divine cloud to see the pattern of the Mishkan that it was his duty to erect, in order to provide a place on earth for the Divine Presence.” As Leibowitz writes, “It is incumbent on [human beings], therefore, to imitate our Creator, [to follow God’s] ways and attributes, and assume the role of being God’s partner in creation. (“Studies in Shemot: A Sanctuary for Me to Dwell in”).

In the same way that God created the world, it is our responsibility to continue that act of creation by building sacred spaces and sacred community. In imitation of God, Moses and the Israelites must pause, take a step back and bless the things they have fashioned. And in more modern terms, God’s model of creating the world serves as the framework for how human beings engage in the act of creating in the world: working during the week, pausing and reflecting on Shabbat, and taking the time to admire, bless and feel blessed by all that we have created.

Comparing the creation and Mishkan narratives pushes us to see if we can imitate God’s sacred act of building and rebuilding our world. To construct something spectacular requires personal involvement and commitment to developing a project and taking the time to work on it during the week and, on Shabbat, reflect on what we’ve created. Being a partner with God requires that we work collaboratively with others who can join us on the road of creating a world of beauty, born out of different insights and perspectives.

Building a home for God is not necessarily about the physical structure as much as it is about the creative process that goes into cultivating relationships with others along the way. When we work with others, our dreams can become reality, our challenges can become solutions, and we can become partners with God in creating a world of shleimut, wholeness, just like seven parallels in the creation and Mishkan stories.

The language and experience of one story can teach us and inform the way we create the next story. For it is when we build things together, inspired by God’s example, that we can take a step back, and see that behold, a great blessing has come into being right before our eyes.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].