Where We Let God In
There is a well-known story of the great Chasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He asked some learned men who were visiting him, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” Laughing, they responded, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole earth full of God’s glory?”
Menachem Mendel then answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”1
This week’s parashah is all about building a dwelling place for God. We learn in significant detail how the Tabernacle is to be constructed, right down to the furnishings and how they are to be fashioned. “ ‘V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham—And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among [within] them’ “ (Exodus 25:8).
Why does God ask the Israelites to build a tabernacle? If God is everywhere, then why build a solitary or central place where God’s Presence is said to rest? The Rabbis and commentators are in general agreement that despite the placement of this week’s portion here, the command to build the Tabernacle must have taken place after the incident of the Golden Calf.2 Having lost sight of Moses and God, the Israelites require a visible token of God’s Presence. The Tabernacle becomes an accommodation to the Israelites, so they should never fear an absence of God’s Presence.
But in finding this passage before the narration of the Golden Calf, the Rabbis glean a famous principle of interpretation: “Said Rabbi Judah ben Shalom, ‘Ayn Mukdam V’Ayn M’Uchar BaTorah—There is no early or late in the Torah.’”3 Torah is timeless, not to be constrained by the apparent chronology of the text.
This is a complicated paradox: The Tabernacle may be fixed in a particular time and place, but God’s Presence transcends both time and space. The words of Torah seem limited by the bounds of language and sequence, fixed in language and narrative, but the spirit and wisdom of Torah transcends text and context. How can God, and Torah, be both bounded and unbounded?
A clue to resolving the paradox is found in how God asks for the Tabernacle to be built. The parashah begins, “ ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved’ ” (Exodus 25:2).
Now, the Tabernacle is an immensely expensive undertaking. For example, the instructions are to make the Ark of acacia wood, nearly four feet long, two and a half feet wide, and two and a half feet deep, and overlaid inside and out with pure gold (Exodus 25:10–11). Rashi says it was even more elaborate—that there were actually three arks—two made of gold and one of wood. The wooden one was placed inside an outer golden ark and a golden inner ark was placed inside the wooden one. Ibn Ezra disagrees, saying that it was just a wooden structure covered in a thin layer of gold (see Mikraot G’dolot on Exodus 25:10–11). But either way, think about how much gold was required just to build the base of the Ark, not including the poles and its cover!
But God does not require the Israelites to bring gifts, nor does God ask that a tax be imposed on the Israelites to ensure that everyone brought their fair share. God asks for gifts only from those whose hearts were so moved.
In order for the Tabernacle to be built, the Israelites had to open their hearts up to God. They had to transcend their own time and place, their own needs and wants. When the Israelites built the Golden Calf, they thought only of their personal cares and concerns. Here, God asks them to open their hearts to something greater than what they can see and touch.
God tells the Israelites that if they build God a sanctuary, then God will dwell within them (Exodus 25:8). It is interesting that God says literally “within them” rather than “within it.” We would think that God was referring to the Tabernacle as God’s dwelling place. But that would be incorrect. If the Israelites are willing to build a Mikdash—a holy place, a sanctuary—then God will dwell within them. The holy place is not simply the Tent of Meeting. The holy place is within a heart that is moved to be open. God’s Presence may be found in the Tabernacle, but God’s dwelling place will be in their open and willing hearts.
In choosing to open their hearts in willing service, the Israelites were able to become transcendent themselves, and thus to draw the Presence of the Transcendent into their community, into their homes, and into their hearts. It is the open and willing heart that creates a portal through which the Eternal and Boundless God can be felt in our bounded and limited midst.
1. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 277
2. See Rashi and Tanchuma T’rumah 8
3. Tanchuma T’rumah 8 as quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem: WZO, 1981), p. 460
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.