The Tent of Meeting
Bible critic walks into a psychiatrist’s office. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Two nights ago I dreamt I was the Ohel Mo‘ed (Tent of Meeting). Last night I dreamt I was the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle.”
“I know your problem! You’re two tents.”
Well, biblical criticism is not renowned for its sense of humor. But there is a real problem here. Do the terms Ohel Mo‘ed and Mishkan refer to the same structure, or to two different structures? Interpreters have argued about this since the time of our Rabbis in the opening centuries of the common era. The Mishkan, of course, was a portable sanctuary, essentially a large tent that could be taken down and put up again as the Israelites wandered from place to place in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. It was thus a kind of forerunner of the great Jerusalem temple, a place where Israelite offered sacrifices to God.
Sometimes, the name Ohel Mo‘ed seems to refer to this same structure. But sometimes it doesn’t. A crucial passage is Exodus 33:7:
Now Moses would take a Tent and set it up outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it the Ohel Mo‘ed. Anyone who sought out the Lord would go out to the Ohel Mo‘ed, which was outside the camp.
This certainly doesn’t sound like the Mishkan. The Mishkan was right in the middle of the camp, and this passage actually seems designed to stress that this was not the case with the Ohel Mo‘ed. But if it was a different structure, what was it for? The name, “Tent of Meeting,” suggests that it was a place of direct encounter with God, a place of revelation (usually, between God and Moses, though the above-cited passage states that “anyone who sought out the Lord” could go to the Ohel Mo‘ed and, as it were, meet with God there).
There is another difference as well. This week’s reading in the Torah opens with God instructing Moses to tell Aaron “not to go at any time into the Holy [of Holies], inside of the curtain…lest he die.” The wording is a little confusing in English, because “at any time” really means “at any time he chooses.” There’s only one time when Aaron or any subsequent High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies—the place where God appears above the outstretched wings of the cherubim—and that is for a few moments on Yom Kippur.
Only once a year, and only for only a short period of time—is that all? But this reflects the very essence of holiness. God’s holiness cannot abide any presence of impurity anywhere in the Mishkan, so everyone and everything there had to be ritually pure and ritually flawless. Any slip-up could be fatal—in fact, that’s exactly what killed Aaron’s two sons (as recounted in the Torah portion Shemini that we read two weeks ago).
Under such circumstances, what sort of mortal human being could be allowed to enter the very holiest part of the Mishkan and stand physically before God? The most that could be risked was to have the super-purified High Priest enter the Holy of Holies for a few moments on the holiest day of the year. But if so, where did that leave the rest of Israel?
It would be tempting to say that that’s where the Ohel Mo‘ed comes in: in the passage cited above, it says that “Anyone who sought out the Lord would go out to the Ohel Mo‘ed”—presumably at any time. But the evidence, as mentioned, is somewhat mixed. Sometimes the Ohel Mo‘ed seems to be a distinct place of revelation, but sometimes this name is also applied to the Mishkan.
So it might be better simply to say that, whatever its role in practice, the Ohel Mo‘ed as described above represents a basic truth about Judaism today. On the one hand, we do have kohanim, priests, and we look forward to the day when the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt so that they can resume their role of old. But in the meantime there is, and always has been, a second way of coming close to God, and that is through the keeping of the mitzvot, God’s commandments. These too are a kind of sanctuary, a non-physical kind that’s always open to anyone at any time—and in this sense, a bit like the Ohel Mo‘ed as described in Exodus 33:7.
I understand why the fellow who goes to the psychiatrist’s office is confused; it’s hard to tell from the biblical evidence whether there was a single tent or two different ones. But in practice there always has been this other, non-priestly way of standing before God—in fact, doing so each and every day. This other tent is the very essence of Judaism.