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.