Torah from around the world #56

by Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein.

The travelling tent – the tent for God – is ready. The Levites – descendants of Gershon and Merari and Kehath – will initially spend their working lives mainly as furniture removers, the descendants of Aaron as holy slaughterers. The People – with a capital P – have brought their donations of materials; the Craftsmen – Bezalel and Oholiab – have mastered amazing creative skills in the desert: goldsmithery, joinery, sewing, bronze smelting, turning, embroidery, tailoring, and making waterproof coverings from leathery skins, getting poles to stand upright in sockets and fitting the hooks in the rings so that the curtains hang straight. Everything is built so that it can be dismantled,  transported and put together again in a windy desert with uneven ground. None of this is as simple as it sounds. Try it and you will see what I mean. Only plumbing, tiling and painting seem to be missing from their collection of domestic construction skills. Did they have to make their own tools as well?

And why? So that God’s Glory could fill the Tent, to such an extent that Moses himself could not get in (Exodus 40:34f.). Any encounters would perforce have to take place at the entrance to the Tent.

It is a mysterious concept that God’s Presence is limited to a particular place, and especially to a small tent in the desert. It provides a one-room apartment with table and lamp and wash bowl – but no bed. (This is, let us not forget, a God who ‘neither slumbers nor sleeps.’). How do we cope with this contradiction between a Universal God who created the entire universe, and a God who can fit into a tent? Later, God tires of this camping trip and desires a more permanent house – but even the word ‘permanent’ has to be understood as being only relative, not absolute. As any homeowner knows, however magnificent a house may be, it still needs regular repairs and can still suffer from damp or fire. Nothing lasts as long as the label says it should. And no-one will insure even a Temple against ‘Acts of God.’

There are many Jews who do not seem to have realised that God left the Temple site two millennia ago – they feel they can still reach God better there, that God will read the messages stuck between the stones and hear prayers directed to a wall more strongly. Many years ago, after my first personal and rather disturbing encounter with this phenomenon as a student, I wrote a couple of poems entitled ‘Post-Kotel Depression’. Hopefully there is an efficient message redirecting service?!

But all this lies still ahead of us. After all the excitement of Exodus and Escape, of Sinai and the Golden Calf, of God’s anger and God’s decision to try a different way, after months of careful collection and construction, at the end of the Book of Exodus the Dwelling is ready and God comes to settle.  The first Settler?

Christians often refer to a synagogue as a ‘House of Gods’ – but this is incorrect. A synagogue is a house for People, for People to encounter or argue with or learn about God – it is not God’s own house. Since the Temple of Jerusalem was demolished, God is not limited any more – neither to a building nor to a tent, and certainly not to a wall.

One further miracle is worthy of mention: this is one construction project that did not go over budget and was delivered on time!

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