Thoughts on the parasha and the situation


Thoughts on the parasha and the situation

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From: David Harbater <[email protected]>

Shabbat Shalom!

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its message for us today

By David Harbater

The second book of the Torah is known by its Greek title "Exodus"—meaning a mass departure—based on the premise that the central theme of the book is God's leading the Israelite people out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The problem is that this title ignores most of the second half of the book, which focuses on another theme entirely –the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Perhaps this title reflects the fact that readers of the Torah, both then and now, find the dramatic story of the Exodus— including the slavery and suffering of the Israelites, God's redemption of His people, the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea—far more compelling than the building of the Mishkan with all its technical details. Nevertheless, the fact that the Torah devotes so much attention to it points to its importance in the grand scheme of biblical history and religion. The question is, what is the Mishkan's importance and what lessons can we derive from it today?

Some suggest that the Mishkan represents the transition from the overwhelming, but momentary, encounter with God on Mount Sinai to a more hidden, but ongoing, encounter with God's presence in the midst of the people throughout their journey in the desert. Perhaps this is to teach us that we must seek to find God in the ordinary day-to-day things and not to wait for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with God during which He will reveal Himself in all His glory and splendor.

Others have argued that the building of the Mishkan parallels the story of the creation of the world. The root a-s-h ("to do") appears frequently in both stories, as do the roots k-l-h ("to complete"), b-r-kh ("to bless") and k-d-sh ("to hallow"), and the focus in both is on order, structure, distinctions and divisions. Thus, the Mishkan can be understood to represent the completion of the process of creation. Initially, God created a home for us; in building the Mishkan we create a home for God. Perhaps this is to teach that, even in the absence of the Mishkan, we should strive to bring God into our lives and make His presence felt in our homes.

A third explanation, and one that has particular relevance during these times, appears in Rabbi Jonathan Sack's book "The Home We Build Together". In his book, Rabbi Sacks presents three parables that serve as paradigms for the ways in which societies are typically constructed. The first is the "country house" which is owned by one particular person. Guests in this house are welcome, provided they follow the rules and customs of the owner. This is similar to societies in which there are insiders and outsiders, a majority and minorities, and a dominant culture that all those living there are expected to embrace. This of course is problematic for those who are not part of the majority culture and who, therefore, do not feel welcome. The second is the "hotel" where people of all backgrounds and cultures are welcome to stay. The problem is that a hotel is where one stays but not where one belongs, and where everyone is a stranger and no one has roots. Thus, this is not an appropriate framework in which to build a healthy and vibrant society either. What then is the solution? For Rabbi Sacks, the solution is the Mishkan and what it came to represent.

The Israelites who left Egypt were comprised of twelve tribes along with a "mixed multitude". Out of this inchoate and fractious group, Moses was charged with the task of creating a nation with a common purpose and belonging. How could this possibly be achieved?

A nation—at least, the kind of nation the Israelites were called on to become—is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself, turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moses to get the people to make the Tabernacle, God was in effect saying: To turn a group of individuals into a covenantal nation, they must build something together… Society is the home, the Tabernacle, we build together. It was built out of difference and diversity… It represented orchestrated diversity, or in social terms, integration without assimilation.

In other words, the key to bringing a disparate group of people together and creating from them a society with roots and a shared purpose is to give them the task of building it together, just as Moses did with the Israelites when he asked them to build the Mishkan. And in this respect, I cannot think of a more relevant message for our times.

Before October 7, Israel was on the verge of civil war because different groups had radically different notions of who "owns" this country and visions of what this country is meant to become. After October 7, however, we discovered that, if we are to survive, we must put aside our differences and build this country together. Furthermore, our soldiers who are from all walks of Israeli life are currently fighting side-by-side to protect and preserve this country. They do not care, nor do they want to hear, about party politics or about the tensions and divisions between us. Thus, they are our contemporary Mishkan, our source of inspiration and hope, as we seek to build a better home for ourselves in the future.

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