Tag Archives: Mishkan

At the Center of our Relationship with God is the Broken and Whole

We just concluded the book of Exodus and in doing so, also concluded the narrative that focused on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites brought with them as they traveled throughout the wilderness.

At the end of this section, God reminds Moses how to set up the Tabernacle:

Place there the Ark of the Pact and screen off the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and lay out its due setting, bring in the lampstand and light its lamps and place the gold altar of incense before the ark of the Pact. (Ex. 40:3-5)

And then Moses does exactly that.

He took the Pact and placed it in the ark, and he fixed the poles to the ark, placed the cover on top of the ark, and brough the ark inside the Tabernacle. (Ex. 40:20)

Central to the Tabernacle is not the altar where offerings and sacrifices took place, but instead the Ark of the Covenant. And what was in that ark? What was at the center of this sanctuary that was core to the Israelites relationship with God?

broken tabletsThe tablets. But not just the second set that Moses carved again. Both sets of tablets were placed inside the ark. The broken and the whole.

While the Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness— one in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed, the Babylonian Talmud offers a different interpretation. Tractate Bava Batra teaches that Rabbi Meir clarifies that something else was in the ark — the broken tablets side-by-side with the whole tablets.

At the center of the sanctuary, at the center of that in which God’s divine Presence, Kavod Shechina, finally resides, and thus at the center of where the Israelites saw God, felt God, and found God, was not just a reminder of their commitment and relationship to God, but also a reminder of their mistakes, of their imperfections, of their brokenness.

We must wrestle with God when we feel broken, just as much as when we feel whole. We find God in loss and illness, in mourning, in heartache. We find God when we do wrong, and when we are looking to rebuild our own Tabernacles. We find God when we curse and yell and cry at God, not just at times of joy and celebration, times of success and light. May we always place at the center of our sanctuaries. And at the center of our relationship with God, me we always put forth that which is whole, and that which is broken. For both are holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It’s About Values, Not Buildings

The Israelites are commanded to bring all sorts of materials – gifts of their hearts – to build the Tabernacle. They bring gold, silver, and linens, even animal skins. Our rabbis clarify that, just in case you were concerned where they were getting these materials from, there was plenty of wealth from what they took with them when they left Egypt. And Shemot Rabbah even explains that for the righteous, when manna fell from the heavens, it also rained down precious stones, gems, and rubies for them.

But what is most challenging to make sense of is not the precious stones or gold or silver. It’s not even the crimson yarn, or the tachash, the skin of a dolphin – or even a mystical creature that no longer exists as one Talmudic section suggests. What doesn’t make sense to me is all the acacia wood, the atzei Shittim, that was needed to build the Mishkan.

Most suggest that acacia wood is native to Australia and southeast Asia. So how did the Israelites get their hands on it? Truthfully, how did they get their hands on any wood in the midbar, in the desert? They were not wandering through the rain forest. They were in the desert, without the shade that trees create. So where did all this wood come from?

Breishit Rabbah says that when Jacob was on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt, he had a vision that the Israelites would need acacia wood to build the Tabernacle. He stopped in Beer Sheva, to pick up plants that Abraham had planted long ago and brought them with him to Egypt to replant them, so the Israelites could take the acacia wood with them when they left Egypt.

I think we are overthinking this though, because we will never be able to explain all the wood the Israelites had in the wilderness. Maybe Atzei Shittim isn’t a special type of wood at all. Midrash suggests that the Hebrew word Shitim, is actually an acronym. The Hebrew letters of this word, Shin, Tet, Yud, and Mem, represent Shalom (peace), Tova (goodness), Yeshua (redemption), and Mechila (forgiveness). It is not that we needed to build the Tabernacle with these specific materials, but instead we needed to build it with these values: peace, goodness, redemption, and forgiveness.

StaindedGlassCeilingI often think about the magnificent spaces that we pray in, that we make our houses of worship. How lucky we are to take these holy spaces and create holy community within them. But we must be reminded that holy community can exist no matter the space we are in. And just because we are in holy space, that does not mean we create holy community. Midrash is suggesting that for God to reside in any space, within the Tabernacle or our own sanctuaries, our communities need to be built on our values and ideals. Cavernous gorgeous spaces will remain empty, no matter how packed the pews are, if they are devoid of the values that we hold dear. May we also never forget that ultimately, it is our values that guide us, not our buildings.

No matter the infrastructural challenges that any building faces, challenges with heating or cooling, or even a leaky roof, the building does not make holy community. We make holy community. The book of Exodus ends with God filling up the space of the Tabernacle. God didn’t do this because the building was finally complete. Rather, God did so because the community was finally living up to the values it was supposed to. A building must be based on how we treat each other, and what we stand for. May our builds always be rooted in the values we stand for – and that is what matters most about them.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Finding God Where We Are

Last Shabbat, we concluded the book of Exodus. We did so by reading the double Torah portion of Vayahkel-Pekudei in which the building of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, is completed. Upon its completion, God’s Divine Presence was felt in the Mishkan. We read in Exodus 40:33-34:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

After building the Tabernacle, a man-made sanctuary, God’s presence entered the space. If God’s Presence entered the space, then where was God prior to the building of the Tabernacle? In fact, God had been missing in the text since the Golden Calf narrative. Only now does God’s Presence return and reappear.

Many commentators suggest that God had hid and distanced God’s self from the Israelites. God was angry and heartbroken that the people that He brought out of slavery and formed a covenant with abandoned Him so quickly by building an idol. The building of the Tabernacle was their opportunity to re-establish the covenant. It was a physical sign to show their commitment to this relationship with the Divine.

However, I don’t think God abandoned the Israelites. Rather, I think the Israelites stopped looking for God. Still wrestling with their idea of the Divine, and grappling with faith, the Israelites stopped looking for God’s Presence in this world and in the natural world around us. The chose to build a Golden Calf instead of look for God everywhere and in everything. The building of the Tabernacle help them to remove the blinders and see God’s Presence there, and in all places.

We all too often stop looking for God in our own lives. We are busy and preoccupied and become obsessed with our own idols, our own versions of the Golden Calf. In doing so, we ignore God’s Presence. We too need to remove the blinders. We too need to remember that God’s Presence is in this space, in all spaces. We too need to stop for a moment and find God in all of our sanctuaries. And when we find God, it will not be because God was missing. Rather, it will be because until now, we hadn’t searched for the Divine.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized