God Dwelling on Earth Below
Some years ago, while teaching Jewish Ethics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I gave my students a difficult assignment: They were to go through an entire day without talking. (In classical Judaism, this is called a "taanit dibur" - literally, a "talking fast.") During the day, they were not allowed to speak to anyone unless absolutely necessary.
When the students reported back their experiences, they expressed shock at what they discovered about interpersonal relationships. For example, one woman named Stephanie said she had held a "conversation" with a friend for over an hour. The friend, unaware that Stephanie was on the "taanit dibur," just kept on talking. At the end of the "conversation," the friend thanked Stephanie for "one of the best conversations I've ever had!"
Many people would rather hear themselves talk than listen to what others have to say. However, Judaism teaches that hearing - going beyond oneself - is more important than self-expression. This is one reason why Torah study is deemed superior to prayer. While prayer is an expression of our thoughts, the Torah is the embodiment of the Almighty's thoughts.
In contrast to many other religions where the primary dynamic of the religious experience is man finding God, in Judaism the major focus is the giving of the Torah, where God made Himself known to man.
This concept of God "coming down" to be with man is explored in this week's Torah portion. Much of the Parsha describes the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary which contained the Ark and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Regarding this Mishkan, God tells Moses, "Make for Me a tabernacle and I will dwell AMONG THEM." God is not distant, He wants to dwell among the Israelites.
This dwelling of the Almighty among the Israelite encampment was manifest in many ways. For example, it was from between the Cherubim (the golden figurines atop the Ark) that Moses and Aaron would hear the voice of the Almighty. The Midrash says that God's presence which came down upon Mount Sinai, then contracted and moved itself to the Mishkan where it rested on top of the ark. In this way, the Mishkan was a permanent manifestation of the revelation at Sinai.
This is particularly significant in light of the sin of the Golden Calf. After that tragic event, the Almighty withdrew Himself from the Jewish People. His return to the Mishkan, however, signaled reconciliation between the children of Israel and their God.
Another Midrash, however, gives an entirely different reason for God's presence in the sanctuary. The Midrash describes a king who loved his only daughter dearly and never wanted to be separated from her. In giving his daughter's hand in marriage, the king stipulated one condition: that the young couple agree to build a small portable guest-house, so he could travel with the young couple wherever they might go.
The Midrash explains this was the intention behind the building of the Mishkan. Anxious to maintain proximity with His only daughter, the Torah, God had constructed a Mishkan in which both He could also "dwell."
The nuances of this Midrash are of course many. But an essential point is that through the Torah, the Almighty gave that wisdom to the Israelites which was dearest to His heart.