Greeting God’s Presence in Our Lives
This week’s double parashah brings the Bible’s second book to a dramatic close. Think how far this people has come in these forty chapters: from an oppressed minority enslaved to a capricious and dangerous Pharaoh, they have become the free followers of the Almighty One, and the recipients of God’s greatest gift, the Torah.
But it has not been an easy road. They suffered anguish as slaves and doubts and backsliding as free people. Indeed, in last week’s Torah reading, they came close to destroying the entire covenant by giving in to their weaknesses and worshipping the Golden Calf. Only Moses’s intercession saved them.
Nonetheless, they have endured, and in this week’s reading, they see the fruits of their labors. By finishing the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that will accompany them in all their travels, they have acquired something beyond a symbol. The Tabernacle is God’s dwelling place—the palpable presence of the Lord, in cloud and in fire, now lives with them. What could be a greater blessing?
These parashiyot embody a structure that is well suited to the highly detailed and delineated building plan of the Tabernacle that we have before us. What’s remarkable is the blending of democracy and hierarchy, chaos and order, that comes together so well in the readings. Essentially, we see a kind of movement that begins with the people themselves and their reaction to the command that they should bring “gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them (Exod. 35:5).” The Torah emphasizes the extraordinary outpouring of generosity that greets this command. It is not a select few that contribute; rather, the “whole community” (35:20) is so moved. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the text makes a special point of showing that gender distinctions are irrelevant here—both men and women, equally, share in this outpouring (35:22–29). Indeed, we might say that what we witness here is the most successful “campaign” in the history of Jewish philanthropy. For when did it ever happen again that the leaders of the community complained that the people were giving too much (36:6)?
But this democratic generosity needed something more. It needed the genius of an exceptional individual, in this case Bezalel and his aide, Oholiab. Bezalel is the ultimate artist, able to fashion this messy hodgepodge of gifts—earrings, rings, purple yarn, linen, dolphin skins, acacia wood, you name it—and turn them into beauty. More than that, he can transform them into beauty in the service of God.
But even Bezalel’s artistry is not enough to complete the Tabernacle. The second of our two parashiyot this week repeats one refrain over and over again when the tasks are being completed: the people did “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” At least twelve different times the Torah repeats that phrase. Why? What is so important that the text would focus on it so obsessively? Perhaps we have a reaction here against last week’s parashah and its narrative of the Golden Calf. There the people did not do “as the Lord had commanded,” and we saw the consequences. By contrast, in this week’s readings, we see their obedience is clearly emphasized.
But beyond that contrast, it appears that this phrase serves another function. The highly specified nature of the Tabernacle is a reflection of the Torah’s message about the nature of reality itself: there is order in our chaotic world. We live, the Torah tells us, in a universe of order that encompasses both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our existence. In one sense—the horizontal axis—there is the world of social equality, of a community that needs to work together across all distinctions of class and gender. But in addition, there is the other vertical axis that recognizes our need for genius like Bezalel’s and leadership like Moses’s. Finally, there is a kind of unifying whole: we must do as God commands us, because without that there is chaos. We must, therefore, erect the Tabernacle as God has ordered. But in a certain sense, by building the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle builds us. For when we do, God does something quite surprising. No longer distant, no longer the aloof “commanding” one, God comes into our midst. God’s Presence lives among us, in the very heart of our community, and God becomes our guide, leading us with cloud and with fire not from a great distance, but from a dwelling place within our very world. Thus the obedience to God’s will becomes the blessing of God’s nearness. This biblical narrative then becomes a kind of model of our hopes for a life of mitzvot: through our fulfillment of the commandments, we greet the Presence of God in our own lives.
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.