A Mirror of the World

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, April 2, 2017

“Where is the dwelling place of God? Wherever we let God in.”

This teaching from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk reminds us that God is wherever we are, wherever we make space for God, whenever we take a moment to commune with the holy in this world. How do we make that space, how do we connect with God? What does it mean for us to make a dwelling place, to make our world a home for God?

The concept that God is wherever we let God in, can be found in the Tanach: Isaiah 6:3 says “the whole world is filled with God’s presence”. In other words, there is no place where God is not. So, it’s not that we have to bring God into the material world — God is already here.

Yet, as we have just finished the book of Exodus, our people wandering in the wilderness with Moses leading them forward from slavery to freedom, the Torah takes no less than thirteen chapters to describe in great detail the building of the Mishkan, a home for God. Thirteen! If, as our tradition teaches, there is nothing superfluous in Torah – every word is there to teach us something, we have to ask why so much minute, exquisite detail? After all, the creation of the world in Genesis, takes just one chapter, there are only three chapters that tell the story of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and a mere eleven chapters tell the story of redemption – the Exodus from Egypt. These are all pivotal experiences in our people’s story, but the building of the Mishkan gets the most elaborate detail, no less than four parashiyot (sections of Torah readings). What makes these details so important? Why is creating a home for God so important?

The word Mishkan, comes from the same Hebrew root as the word Shechina, one of the names for God – the indwelling presence, referred to in kabbalistic imagery as the feminine aspect of the divine. Today in modern Hebrew we have the word shechuna from the same root, meaning neighbourhood, and a neighbour is a shachen. We know that it is possible to live in a neighbourhood, and not feel at home in a place. In the same way, we understand that God can be in the world and not feel at home. To be “at home” means being in a place that is receptive to your presence, a place where you can be your true self. So, in order to make a home for God in the world, Torah is describing transforming the physical and material into something that is reflective of the spiritual.

The Mishkan is supposed to be a mirror of the world. The detailed instructions for building the Mishkan as the model and prototype for God’s presence on earth remind us of how anything in the world has the potential to be transformed, how we can bring Godliness, holiness into the mundane, the world we live in. But we are also aware that we live in a world in which God often seems to be absent. Instead of a world where human beings are treated with honour and respect, too often we find cruelty and inhumanity, and human suffering at the hands of other human beings. Instead of a world where we take care of the precious natural resources that God has given us, we live in a world where we have used our abilities to destroy rather than create, to pollute rather than take care of the earth.

The Mishkan is the model for what could be. In a macro world of imperfection, of disorder and brokenness, the Mishkan is a place that is ordered, whole, and holy. It is the ideal world in the middle of the real world that we live in. The Mishkan is the one small place within the greater world where everything unfolds according to plan, where it is “just as God commanded Moses.”

The world we live in is supposed to be the larger representation of the Mishkan, a place where God’s blueprint is followed, where God is present, where there is room for God because we make a place where God can be at home in the world. The thirteen chapters in Exodus that describe the building of the Mishkan in such loving detail challenge us to find ways to live our lives in a way that makes a home for God, a place where we bring God into our little corner of the world, where in the midst of the brokenness, we make room for the holy, and build our community and our world into a place where God can dwell.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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