Having God in the Neighborhood
An overview of the Book of Exodus reveals that four out of the eleven portions deal with various aspects of the construction of the Tabernacle, (Mishkan) the design of its utensils, the vestments of its priests, (Kohanim), and the ceremonies surrounding its inauguration.
This is roughly 40% of the entire book!
It's difficult to relate to all this detail. The Torah is generally a very parsimonious book. When it devotes so much space to a subject it can only be taken as evidence of its importance. That is exactly what is perplexing. Why does the Torah allot so much space and go into so much detail regarding the Mishkan? What difference does it make how the Mishkan looks? Why not just tell the Jews to construct a special tent for Divine service? They surely would have understood that such a tent must be as beautiful as possible, and they would have constructed it accordingly. Why all this bewildering detail?
The question itself points to the answer. Apparently we aren't discussing places of worship. We are talking about places in which God plans to "live."
A HOME OF HIS OWN
When someone designs and builds a home for himself, we are not surprised to find him involved in the details. It is natural for him to meet with the architects and inject his input into the plans; we expect to find him inspecting the actual construction fairly often. When the house is finally up we would be shocked if he did not become involved in choosing the décor and selecting the furniture. A person's home makes a powerful statement about him. It reflects his personality, his tastes and attitudes, his standing in the world. As if this weren't challenging enough he also needs to be comfortable there.
When God told Moses, "They should build me a Temple and I will dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8), Moses said, "Who could possibly construct a Temple that He could live in?" It is written, "Can it be that God could dwell on earth; even the heavens above cannot contain Him" (Kings I 8:27). And it is written, "'My Presence fills the heavens and the earth,' says God" (Jeremiah 23:24). And it is written, "So says God, 'The heavens are My throne and the earth is the footstool, so what kind of house can you possibly build me?'" (Isaiah 66:1).
God told him (Moses): "I do not request that they build it according to My standard, only according to their capacity. If it should be according to my standard, the entire universe could not accommodate even My servant! I only want twenty cubits in the south, twenty on the north, and eight on the west." (Bamidbar Rabba, 12:3)
The need for all the detail is clear then. God went to all the trouble because He actually intended to live in this tent. But why? What is the point of having God living amongst us in a tent?
A NATION OF PRIESTS
"You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6)
In the Covenant He established with us at Sinai, God established the Jewish people as a nation of priests. This means that the nations of the world would have to establish and maintain their contact with God through the Jewish people. The Covenant established the Jewish people as God's exclusive intermediaries.
But you only require the services of a priest if your contact with God is tangible. The priest spends his life as God's functionary. He is familiar with the procedures that prevail in God's house and he knows the protocol to follow when you approach Him. He has the authority to relay requests, and it is through him that the requests are answered.
But when God can only be accessed through faith, and His Presence is only manifest as a feeling in people's hearts and an image in their minds, what need is there for priests? Nobody in the world can contact God in a tangible way in any case, including the priest; the only way to reach out to Him is through the mind and the heart. It is far from clear that the mind and heart of the priest is more suited for this task than anyone else's.
This simple observation was behind the downfall of the universal Roman Church and ushered in the Reformation. If contact with God is purely a matter of conscience there is no need for a class of priests.
Jews cannot assume the role in the world that was assigned to them, unless there is a physical way to contact God. What is more, to make Jews acceptable as priests, it must be clear to others that the means of establishing contact was entrusted to the Jewish people.
BACK IN TIME
To appreciate the full significance of this we must attempt to put ourselves back in time about two thousand years.
We are currently in the year 2003 and have just experienced a millennium. The millennium, although it marks a year in the secular calendar is nevertheless a very significant marker from a Jewish point of view. The Second Holy Temple - the successor of the Tabernacle that is the subject of our Torah portion - was destroyed two thousand years ago. With its destruction, the world was bereft of a manifest Divine presence for the first time since the days of Abraham (who was born approximately two thousand years prior to the final destruction of the second Temple).
To understand the world as it was and contrast it to the world as it is, let us glance at the phenomenon of idol worship.
The Torah, (the five Books of Moses) is replete with admonitions forbidding this practice. The subject of idol worship is the most prominent recurring theme in the writings of the Prophets. There must be a very powerful human urge to worship idols if there are so many exhortations against it.
Yet, modern man is totally uninfected by the slightest trace of such a desire.
Indeed, not only are we free of the urge to worship idols, we regard the practice as downright ludicrous. The Torah describes it as evil, but we can only see it as absurd and primitive.
Under what circumstances might the practice of idol worship not be considered ridiculous?
We are searching for Torah answers, so let us orient ourselves toward human history in the context of the Bible. According to the Torah's presentation, it must have been clear to all men from the very dawn of history that God runs the world. Adam told his children the story of his creation, his sin and his expulsion from Paradise. He remained among the living long enough to be able to tell Noah the story personally, fist hand. Noah must have repeated the story to his children who therefore heard the story of creation no more than second hand. They couldn't have experienced much doubt about the fact that they lived in a created world. Noah's son Shem, and Shem's great-great grandson Ever survived well past the birth of Abraham and told mankind the story of the flood; who brought it and why it came.
And yet, despite this undoubted certainty concerning God's existence, we are told that the worship of idols began in the days of Adam's son Seth. (See Maimonedes, Yad, Avoda Zara, 1:1.) It is clear then, that idol worship cannot be linked to a lack of faith in the existence of the One God; as we shall learn shortly, it was actually based on the idea that God ran the world through a kind of heavenly bureaucracy.
But while knowledge of God's existence was widespread, direct evidence of His Presence was in short supply until the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temples. God never actually lived among men before these structures were erected. It is our theory that while the practice of idol worship may have been ancient, the urge to worship idols was born only when Abraham established the relationship with God that ultimately led to the meeting at Sinai and the erection of the Tabernacle.
THE NEED FOR IDOLS
If we had a Temple we would understand the urge to worship idols perfectly. As long as the first Temple stood, God was a manifest Presence in the world. Not only was it impossible to doubt His existence, it was also impossible to ignore His Presence. All a person had to do to encounter Him was to visit the Temple.
Such intimate contact with God's Presence made it crystal clear that God was the ultimate source of all power in the universe, and that He took an active interest in human affairs. He rewarded the upright, punished the wicked, and declared his intentions through the mouth of His prophets.
Just as the encounter with God's Presence made it impossible to ignore God, it also made it clear that it was dangerous to slight the Jewish people. It was they who served as His mouthpiece, and it was the Jews that He placed in charge of "His Embassy on Earth" which He chose to locate in Jerusalem.
Human history in the Temple period revolved around coming to terms with co-existence with an Omnipotent All-Seeing Divinity.
Whereas our problem in relating to God is overcoming distance and estrangement - God is not a manifest Presence in our world; He exists for us only as an idea – the problem of dealing with God in the Temple era was that the Divine Presence was positively oppressive.
CONDUCT IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD
To explain the sense of oppression caused by the nearness of the Divine Presence let us consider the very first rule in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law:
"I have placed God right next to me at all times." (Psalms 16:8) (This) is a fundamental principle of Torah observance and the basis of the merit of the tzaddikim, "the righteous ones," who conduct their affairs in God's Presence. You cannot compare the way a person sits or moves around and the sorts of activities he is busy with when he is alone at home, and the way the same person conducts himself in all these activities when he is in the presence of a great king. Nor does his speech and looseness of expression when he is with his family and close friends resemble how he would express himself in the king's presence. Especially when a person takes into consideration that this great king (of our metaphor) is the Holy One Himself, whose Glory fills the universe, and who is therefore always observing his doings. As it is written: "'If a person conceals himself in a safe hiding place, will I not see him?' says God" (Jeremiah 23:24). Such a perception will immediately induce a great fear of God and a sense of embarrassment to descend on him. (Guide for the Perplexed 3:52; Orach Chaim 1:1)
As long as the Temple stood, this injunction, which nowadays only tzaddikim manage to live by, was the way all men naturally perceived the world.
God's watchful presence was an overwhelming pressure in every human life. The only way to free oneself of the constant tension it caused was to invent a device that could put some distance between God's Presence and humanity.
THE NEED FOR IDOLS
This distance was achieved through the concept of 'intermediary intelligences.' The idol worshipper did not doubt God's existence for a moment. He fully subscribed to the belief that God was the creator and the source of all energy and power. His only addition to standard Orthodoxy was the introduction of the proposition that God manages the world's affairs through a heavenly bureaucracy.
He has all kinds of celestial servants and ministers to whom He delegates power. One never has to deal with Him directly except in the case of the most important global issues. Any lesser problem that arises is handled by His agents; gods whose names are spelled with a small "g", who have their instructions, but also have ideas and personalities of their own. It is in their presence and not God's that one conducts one's life, and it is with them, not God that one has direct dealings.
The Hebrew term for idol worship is avodah zara, literally "foreign service." Thus all human beings serve God, except that some deal with Him as though He was a foreign power, who can only be reached in indirect ways through His representatives.
We can now easily comprehend the source of the temptation to worship idols, and also why we are so free of it. Without the Temple and without God's direct "oppressive" presence, we have no need of intermediaries, and indeed cannot even understand why anyone would have such a need.
THE MISSING CONTACT
Let us now take a look at the positive side of the coin. Let us see if we can gain some insight to what the relationship with God meant to someone who was not an idol worshipper.
After the Jews served the Golden Calf, God's initial reaction was to destroy them all instantaneously, but Moses successfully interceded on their behalf and managed to nullify the edict of destruction.
But his success was qualified. Although God agreed to carry out His oath to the patriarchs and bring the Jews to the Promised Land, He made the following reservation:
'I shall send an angel ahead of you ... because I shall not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I annihilate you on the way.' The people heard these terrible tidings and they became grief stricken and no one donned his crown. God said to Moses, 'Say to the children of Israel, "You are a stiff necked people. If I ascend among you, I may annihilate you in an instant. And now remove your crowns from yourself and I shall know what I shall do with you."' So the children of Israel took off their crowns they had from Mt. Horeb. (Exodus 33:2-6)
The commentators (see Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides) describe these crowns as talismans that could protect their wearers against agents of harm, including the angel of death. The wearers of these crowns were mightier than "Superman" for they were in effect immortal. (See Exodus 33:6) The background to these crowns was the abolishment of the edict of mortality imposed on mankind following the sin of Adam. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 5a) explains that the receiving of the Torah had the potential to nullify the edict of death. It was the sin of the golden calf and its repercussions that robbed us of the possibility once again. The 'crowns' of the passage symbolize the nullification of the original decree.
In the passage above the Jews voluntarily offer to give up their resurrected power of immortality to atone for the mistake of the golden calf. To understand the background to these negotiations regarding immortality we must delve into the story a little deeper.
The first development: God relents on the decision to instantly annihilate the Jewish people but He decides to conduct His affairs with them in future through angels. They would still receive everything they were promised, except that God's own Presence would not be manifest in their midst. The commentators explain that this means there would be no Tabernacle or Temple.
God explains that this new policy of keeping His distance is not punitive; it is a precautionary step intended to secure the safety of the Jewish people. Maintaining the Divine presence in their midst is too fraught with danger for them. Every sin is an insult to the Divinity. To insult God to His face is an intolerable slight. To insult God when He is so remote and distant that you aren't positive that He is paying attention to you at all is a far lesser offense.
Upon receiving the news of God's decision regarding the new policy of remoteness the Jewish people go into mourning. They are so upset they remove their crowns, their guarantee of eternal life here on earth. Eternal life without the Presence of God is tantamount to eternal banishment from the Divine Presence. Under the circumstances the Jewish people preferred to die. At least after death they could be reunited with the Presence of the Divinity.
Their formal response, delivered a few verses later, clearly expresses this thought.
He (Moses) said to Him (God) "If your Presence does not accompany us, do not bring us up from here. How then, will it be known that I have found favor in your eyes, I and your people, unless you accompany us. And I and your people are made distinct from all peoples on the face of the earth." (Exodus 33:15-17)
In other words, if we lose the distinction of playing host to God's presence, we would rather stay right here in the desert. We have no wish to continue living anyway, and we may as well die right here.
This is the Jewish response to God's concern about their instant annihilation. Life is worthless without God's presence anyway, so the risk of annihilation is a danger we are prepared to face.
THE SHADOW WORLD
Man has lived in a shadow world for the past millennia. There is an intensity of life and experience that has been absent from the world for so long that we have become accustomed to accept the world we see as 'normal'. In the days of the Temple, the intensity of God's Presence shone so bright that one was either irresistibly drawn to it - willing to pay any price to experience it to its fullest intensity as in the case of our forefathers in the desert - or one was forced to run away from it down the avenue of idol worship.
Too many chose to run away. The spiritual intensity of God's Presence was withdrawn. The resulting vacuum of holiness was an immense shock that threw mankind into the darkness of the Middle Ages where man remained for over a thousand years. In the past millennium man has managed to create a new world, but one based on physicality and technology rather than spirituality.
We regard our ancestors of two thousand years ago as primitive. They had no cars or airplanes, no rockets or telephones. Yet our ancestors' eyes were able to focus on a dimension of existence that is totally dark to us, the world of the spirit. Were we able to catch a clear glimpse of their world it is questionable how much value we would place on all our gadgets.
In his commentary for the beginning of this Torah portion Nachmanides reveals the secret behind the Tabernacle and the two Temples that replaced it.
SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR
God did not intend his meeting with the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai to be a never to be repeated pinnacle of human history. In the Tabernacle and its successors, he gave us the spiritual technology to keep this meeting fresh and alive. Whoever walked into the Tabernacle or into the Holy Temples that ultimately replaced it found himself back in the presence of God at Mt. Sinai. As he stood there He felt the Divine voice permeate his being:
"I am God your Lord Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery."
Imagine having constant access to such an experience. You would be hard put to find some other life-experience that could possibly measure up. The attraction of TV certainly pales in comparison.
The Talmud found a poignant metaphor that encapsulates the point perfectly:
There was a (man) who walked around saying, "When the love between my wife and myself was strong, we could have lain together on the blade of a sword. But now that our love has faded, a bed sixty cubits wide does not suffice us."
R' Huna said, "This thought is expressed by the following passages concerning our relationship with God. At first it is written, "And I (God) will meet you (Moses) there, and I will speak with you from above the Ark" (Exodus 25:22). (This was a total of 10 tefachim, or one and a half cubits.) Later it is written, "The House that King Solomon built for God, its length was sixty cubits, its width twenty, and its height thirty" (Kings I 6:2).
While concerning God and His relationship with His people as it was at the end, (before the Temple's destruction) it is written, "So says God, 'The Heavens are my throne and the earth is my footstool, what house can you build for Me?'" (Isaiah 66:1) (Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a)