Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true
and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary, oh for you. (Scruggs and Thompson)
The final chapters of Exodus and the opening pages of Genesis are like matching bookends. “In the beginning,” God made a world in which people could dwell. Now, the Israelites return the favor by building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a space within that world where the presence of God can dwell.
The Israelites donate so much material for the project, that Moses, surprisingly, has to tell them to stop. Their gifts have been more than sufficient. For, how else can God’s dwelling place be built if not through a spirit of generosity, unity of purpose, and love?
It is unlike other Temples, ancient or modern, in one key respect: It is temporary and portable, meant to wander in the midst of the people as they themselves wander. Its holy ark is built with horizontal poles, ready to be lifted, carried, and set down again. Its walls and outer tent are constructed for easy disassembly, ready to travel and to be reassembled, as the people likewise break and reconstitute their camp.
This moveable Mishkan conveyed the comforting message that the God of Sinai is not static. Although the mountain is immovable, the experience of Sinai is portable. By carrying it with us, we continually create the conditions for God to be with us, across time and space. So we ask ourselves: What are the planks of our Mishkan? What are the daily kindnesses, the rituals, the freely given gifts of time and energy, with which we create space for God’s Presence?
The Mishkan’s design also testifies to the essentially impermanent nature of experience. It is made to move, because we are perpetually on the move. Emotions and mind states come and go, thoughts arise and pass, living things grow and die. We are perpetually forgetting, wandering, remembering and returning. Tellingly, the final word of the book of Exodus is “journeys.” Yet, we need never travel the journey alone.
Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick; Schechter alumni parent