In this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, when the book of Exodus is completed, so is the Mishkan. Ancient commentators notice that the language of the Creation story and the language of the building of the Mishkan are parallel.
“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) The Creation story begins our Torah. God lists instructions for the making of the world, and then sees the instructions through. After, in the first use of the word, God blesses the creatures — including human beings. God is the sole power here. God conceives creation and then actualizes it, and holiness is manifest in the world.
Much later, when the Jewish people become central to the story, a specific place for God to dwell needs to be designed. This place is the Mishkan, a traveling sanctuary that accompanies us during our desert years. As with Creation, God devises the plans, but here, Moses and the Israelite people do the actual fulfillment. God instructs Moses with great detail regarding the Mishkan, Moses relays these details, and the Jewish people build it. In this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, when the book of Exodus is completed, so is the Mishkan, “Thus was completed all the work of the Mishkan” (Exodus 39:32). Ancient commentators notice that the language of the Creation story and the language of the building of the Mishkan are parallel. In both, God’s vision is clearly stated, and then the actions to attain the vision are executed. There are parallels in the Hebrew to accentuate the connection of these two stories.
The difference is that in the Creation story, God alone creates the space in which holiness can reside. With the Mishkan, God works with us in creating the space in which holiness dwells. After the Mishkan is completed, God tells us that “the Presence of God filled the Mishkan” (Exodus 40:34).
The Mishkan was our sanctuary during the 40 years in which we wandered in the desert. Eventually, after we settled in the Promised Land, the Mishkan transformed into the permanent holy Temple in Jerusalem. That Temple has been destroyed for almost 2,000 years. Since then, we have grappled with what is next. First, God created the holy space for us. Then, God directed us in creating the holy space. And now? What is our third mode? How do we have holiness in our time now? The world has been created. The Mishkan/Temple is no more. What do we do to experience sacredness? Where is our holy space?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes meaningfully about the post-Temple transition in his book, The Sabbath. He describes Judaism as a religion with a “palace in space” (our holy Temple) moving to a religion with a “palace in time.” This palace in time that he paints for us is not tangible, yet compelling to imagine. Heschel writes about Shabbat being our “palace in time” — any time we gather together in community to do Judaism, we are constructing this palace.
As we gather with others to light Shabbat candles, we are building that palace. As we pray together at a house of mourning, we lay the foundation. As we dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, we erect the walls and decorate them with rich paints. As we learn in the synagogue, windows are installed, which let the sunlight stream across the floor. As we blow the shofar, a sparkling candelabrum is installed. As we gather for a bris, the magnificent curtains are hung. As we dance at a Bat Mitzvah, the Torah is placed into the exquisite ark.
Holiness can occur at any time and in any place; it is empowering — and unquestionably Jewish — to craft our lives to encourage that holiness to enter. We do that through regular prayer. We do that by forming and nurturing community and vital relationships. We do that by gathering for holy days and life cycle moments. Every time we come together, we have the potential to set the conditions for sacredness. As Heschel writes in The Sabbath, the palace of time is “a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine.” That is our goal.
God’s abode may not be as tangible today as it was during the Mishkan. But, perhaps we are partners with God now, in a way that was not possible when God told us exactly what to build. This third era may be one in which God becomes more palpable, as we lead more. We are building our palaces in time and God is coming to fill them. “When Moses had finished the work …the Presence of Adonai filled the Mishkan” (Exodus 40:33-34). Let us start with Moses’ example of the Mishkan, and then do everything we can to create the moments, so that God will bless us and fill our lives with spirituality, meaning, and holiness.
Rabbi Beth Janus educates, and conducts life cycle ceremonies in the Philadelphia community. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.