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Holy spaces


This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, finds the wandering Israelites post-Sinai, with a whole lot of new rules & regs to contemplate, both big and small, and more to come. Their leader is up on the mountain for 40 days, there to get the written tablets — though the first piece of business is not the law but rather instructions for the accoutrements necessary for God to dwell on Earth and for the Israelites to properly worship: ark, table, gilt cherubim, lamp stand, incense burners, and the tabernacle (sometimes called “tent of meeting”). Verse after verse, Moses is given precise specs and blueprints, down to the last cubit, for what is to be done with a great deal of gold, silver, copper, crimson & purple yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, acacia wood, (olive) oil, spices, incense, precious stones, and more.

As with so much else in Torah, precision and order is crucial, but this is not a one-sided project: the people are to contribute the specified raw materials as their hearts move them. Their individual offerings, heart by heart, will make possible God’s concreteness in the desert, a sort of genie in a bottle. The Hebrew word for tabernacle (“mishkan“) is related to Shechinah, the in-dwelling Divine (feminine) presence. God can’t possibly need a container – or be contained, for that matter – but nevertheless, the people are building a place for God to dwell among them, a place that can be packed up and re-built over and over as they wander. Their action will call down the thunder that can be seen and the lightning that can be heard.

In thinking about the command to build a literal, seeable tent-hotel that will house not just the tablets (when they arrive) and the sacrificial knick-knacks, but the very presence of God, I realized: it’s difficult getting used to an invisible, formless, all-powerful Being. One needs something more tangible (hence, the allure of idols).  It was the notion of a portable Presence that I explore in my poem We Were In That Place, and God. This piece, about the Egyptian train disaster of 2002 in which hundreds died, kept bringing me back to some basic questions: Are there ever places that God abandons? How do we create holy spaces? Why do we need to see in order to believe? It’s a sad poem, and one of my favorites.

P.S. There’s a life-size model of the Tabernacle complex here, from Timna Park in the Negev. Now I’m sorry that we missed this tourist spot during our extended travels.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Solomon permalink
    02/15/2010 9:08 pm

    Nice posting. I see the Mishkan as the inverse of an idol: Instead of a statue that the congregation can surround, a tent that surrounds the congregation.

    I don’t think “tent of meeting” is another name for the Mishkan, however. I believe it (“ohel mo’ed” in Hebrew) refers to the smaller tent inside the Mishkan where Moses would sequester himself for one-on-one time with G!d.

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    02/16/2010 9:36 am

    Thanks for the Hebrew clarification. These terms often confuse me. Also, the mishkan as inverse as an idol (which is very nice!)… it’s still physical, a physical place, something we can see and touch and wonder at. We Jews don’t carve images of God, but we do surround ourselves with lots of physical things. There’s a kind of comfort in earthly items that remind us of the non-Earthly.

  3. Dan Price permalink
    02/22/2010 10:34 am

    It was nice to bump into you at the dance studio; I hope that in time we’ll be as good at it as you and Bruce. It was interesting to see someone with “Truth” stenciled on her arm perform so well in an endeavor in which truth is irrelevant. Or is it? Perhaps the biggest obstacle to good dancing is self conciousness; essentially a fear of others seeing us as we really are; seeing our ineptitude. A committment to truth, as unfortunate as that truth may be, frees us to excell. On the other hand, isn’t dancing a type of physical hypocricy; a euphemistic representation of our sexuality? Maybe it’s both at the same time, but for both Joy and I it’s more a matter of truth. I think we’re both overcoming what amount to social fears. For me though, I see others wiggling their hips in blatently suggestive ways and I think “I’ll never do that in public!” What do you think?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      02/22/2010 10:50 am

      Here’s what I think… I think that I’m going to devote my next posting to your questions. They are goodies! Look for something by the end of the week.

  4. Dan Price permalink
    02/22/2010 10:47 am

    How is it that a posting about the design of the Tabernacle automatically generated a “possibly related post” about great ideas for condo decorating? I’m sure there’s a philosophical insight in that, and maybe after I stop laughing I’ll figure out what it is.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      02/22/2010 10:51 am

      This is fabulous! Maybe tabernacle: condo as Temple:mansion. Ooooh, perfect SAT question.

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