By Rabbi Alan Iser
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are commanded to build a portable sanctuary in which to worship God, the Mishkan (tabernacle), from the Hebrew word meaning “to dwell.”
The first item they are to construct is the ark, overlaid with gold, with two cherubs at the end of the ark cover. It is from above the cover, between the two cherubs, that God will speak through Moses to the people (Exodus 25:27). The way the medieval commentator Nachmanides explains this passage is that God’s immanent presence will rest on the ark cover which he compares to Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne and chariot.
In other words, this is a palpable physical resting place for God. The Mishkan as a whole seems to be God’s abode on earth. This conception of God seems to go well with the image of God who appears a few chapters earlier on Mount Sinai. God’s appearance is accompanied by smoke and fire with a thunderous voice. The pyrotechnics described here seem perfect for a Hollywood movie. And, indeed, they were for Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments.” This is a public, physical God who makes a strong, sensory impression.
However, there is another interpretation of the purpose of the Mishkan which fits a radically different conception of God. Commentators note that the commandment to build the Mishkan states: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” (Exodus 25:8) and they ask shouldn’t it say “in it” instead of “among them”? This wording comes to teach us, says the Kotzker Rebbe, that each person must build a sanctuary in their heart and then God will dwell among them. What God is seeking is not to enter into a physical place so much as into the core of our being.
There is another revelation of God at Mount Sinai (also known as Horeb) in the Book of Kings (Kings I, 19:9-14). The prophet Elijah has taken refuge there, fleeing into the desert to escape the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who have killed all the prophets of God as they institute the worship of the Canaanite god Ba’al. Elijah experiences a wind that splits rocks, an earthquake and fire. Although God’s power causes these natural wonders, God’s presence is finally found in a soft, murmuring voice which Elijah hears.
Both of these conceptions of God, the dramatic, public, physical God and the quiet, private, invisible God, can be found in the Jewish tradition.
Which God does our generation need? Maybe we need the God found in the soft murmuring voice. We have so much information noise in our lives, constantly bombarded with email, images on screen and visual assaults, that we might miss the miraculous God of Sinai even if that God made a dramatic entrance. Then again, we might also misperceive God’s presence even if God comes more quietly and personally since we are so self-absorbed.
There is a television show called “Friended by God” in which the protagonist receives communications by God via Facebook. He, a devout atheist, tries to find out who is really behind the God account since he doesn’t believe that God exists. The show is kind of hokey, but it raises the question of whether, in the age of the Internet, we are open to a relationship with God.
Can we open our hearts to be full of love and awe of God so that we become a place where God dwells? “Where is God’s dwelling?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe. Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.” Maybe we can make room in our hearts and build a sanctuary for God.
Rabbi Alan Iser is an adjunct professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.