This week’s Torah reading (Exodus 25 – 27:19) begins with Moses’ request that the Israelites contribute whatever they have on hand—any gold or silver or copper, twines of various colors, and other materials—to be used in the building of the mishkan. The mishkan was essentially a portable sanctuary, a large tent that could be taken down and reassembled as the Israelites moved from place to place in their wanderings through the wilderness. Its purpose was thus the same as that of the great temple built later on in Jerusalem: to create a specific place where God could be worshiped through the offering of sacrifices and thus invite God to, as it were, dwell in Israel’s midst. As God tells Moses in this week’s reading: “Let them make Me a mishkan so that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod 25:8).
Logically, God could have continued to dwell on Mount Sinai and later, moved to Mount Zion without any need of a mishkan or temple. Indeed, He could have followed the wandering Israelites from within a cloud or some other feature of the natural (or supernatural) world, accepting their offerings from within such a dwelling. There is thus some significance in the fact that the mishkan was to be built by human hands, “Let them make Me a mishkan so that I may dwell in their midst.”
In considering the matter, our rabbis (that is, the religious authorities of the Mishnah and Talmud) depicted the building of the mishkan as the last step in a kind of great circle. They pointed out that when God created the first human beings, He put them in the Garden of Eden, where He Himself dwelled. After all, the rabbis pointed out, Adam and Eve are said to have heard “the sound of the Lord God walking about in the midst of the Garden” (Gen. 3:8), so He must have been right there. But after the pair ate from the forbidden tree, God put some distance between Himself and the human beings and moved up some distance from the garden floor itself. Then came Cain, Adam and Eve’s son; after he murdered his brother Abel, God further distanced himself from humanity and went up still higher. The generations that followed were hardly better, until finally, after ten generations, God had to bring the Great Flood in the time of Noah in order to cleanse the earth of its sinful inhabitants. By then, He was far, far away, watching from a great distance above the earth.
Just at that point, however, a new sort of human being appeared: Abraham, “the one who loved God” (Isa. 41:8) and who was prepared to follow Him at all costs; his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob, likewise devoted to God. Jacob’s son Joseph was a model of virtue, “Joseph the righteous.” As these figures appeared one after another, according the midrash, God began to descend little by little, until He was once again just above the earth’s surface. It was then that He said, “Let them make Me a mishkan so that I may dwell in their midst.”
Our rabbis associated this great return with a particular verse in the Song of Songs: “I have come into My garden, My sister, My bride.” The bride, of course, represents the people of Israel, and the “garden” in question is no other than the mishkan. But why call it a garden? The mishkan was a tent, fashioned by human hands. In view of the foregoing, however, it was indeed like the Garden of Eden; it was a place where God might again dwell in the midst of humanity, just as He had done in the time of Adam and Eve. In this sense, the building of the mishkan was indeed a kind of return to what had once been—but different, since this garden was made by humans. In fact, one might pronounce the words of that verse, “I have come into My garden, My sister, My bride” slightly differently, not ahoti kallah (“My sister, My bride”) but ahoti killah (“which My sister—the people of Israel—has completed”). If so, this reading would stress (albeit with some grammatical leniency) that the second garden, unlike the first, was made possible through human agency (and that’s the way it has been ever since). Shabbat shalom.