The final chapter of Exodus marks the end of a much bigger chapter--and the beginning of a bigger one, still.
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So the book that opens with the Israelites enslaved and forced to build garrison cities (Exodus 1:11) sees the Israelites, in the end of that book, liberated, committed in covenant to the divine, and commanded to build, yet again.
This time, it’s not the garrison cities of Pithom and Ramses for Pharaoh; it’s a Tabernacle for God. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the construction of the Tabernacle/Mishkan and the garments for the priests has been going on for a number of chapters.
And now, at the end of Exodus, it’s time to put everything together.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. Place there the Ark of the Pact, and screen off the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and lay out its due setting; bring in the lampstand and light its lamps; and place the gold altar of incense before the Ark of the Pact. Then put up the screen for the entrance of the Tabernacle. You shall place the altar of burnt offering before the entrance of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. Place the laver between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Set up the enclosure round about, and put in place the screen for the gate of the enclosure. You shall take the anointing oil and anoint the Tabernacle and all that is in it to consecrate it and all its furnishings, so that it shall be holy. Then anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils to consecrate the altar, so that the altar shall be most holy. And anoint the laver and its stand to consecrate it. You shall bring Aaron and his sons forward to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and wash them with the water. Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. This their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages. This Moses did; just as God had commanded him, so he did.
They built again, have set up again, but whereas Pharaoh was there to exploit them, to see their labor as a means of holding power over them, this is God’s way of connecting with the Israelites, of being with them, being in relationship.
There is building here and building there, but what is being built is not the same.
But more than that, the creation of this Tabernacle, this Mishkan, this space of divine indwelling bookends a much longer, more profound journey that has been taking place.
Moses saw all their work, and behold, just as God had commanded it, they had done it, and he blessed them. (Exodus 39:43)
“God saw all God had made, and behold, it was very good…” (Genesis 1:31)
“And God blessed them…” (Genesis 1:28).
Moses completed the work. (Exodus 40:33)
The heaven and earth were completed… And God completed, on the seventh day, the work God had done. (Genesis 2:1-2)
This is, I will note, not my special hot take—observations of the many parallels between the Creation story and the Mishkan go back to Rabbinic midrash, and many Torah commentators have subsequently elaborated on them.
In some ways, the creation of the Mishkan—the Tabernacle—is the end of a cycle for the (character of the) divine. God created the world, had to navigate a few mishaps (like that awkward wicked people/flood incident), finally figured things out at least enough to get this one group of people out of enslavement, and is now saying, OK, I am ready to settle down and have a place to live. Let’s get a mortgage application going on My everlasting abode!
And in another way, it’s a Creation moment for the Israelite people. We saw them birthed, as a people, as they crossed through the narrow place and the waters into freedom, aided by the midwife Miriam and the women singing them along. There will be (spoiler alert!) plenty of Terrible Two-like tantrums yet to come in the Book of Numbers. But here, now, they’re part of the creation of themselves, having finally received Torah, now part of making themselves new in relationship with God. Something is happening.
God makes human beings a home in the beginning, in the Creation story. And now, people make God a home.
And, in fact, this home was meant to be a world unto itself—a small version of the larger world that already existed. Midrash Tanchuma (Pikudei 3) talks about how the “Tabernacle is equal to the creation of the world itself,” noting myriad parallels, from the lights in the heavens and the menorah, waters being gathered and the creation of a water basin, flying birds and winged cherubim on the Ark, the creation of humans and the appointment of the High Priest, and so forth.
As Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, the mid-13 to mid-14th c. Spanish commentator known as Rebbeinu Bachya put it in his commentary on Exodus 38:21,
The gist of the Midrash Tanchuma 2 on our portion is that there are too many parallel expressions in the creation of the universe and the manufacture of the Tabernacle for them to be accidental; the message must be that we are dealing here with a microcosm, i.e. a miniature “world.” It is therefore easier to perceive of the Presence of God feeling comfortable in such surroundings.
The home that humans created for God is the same, in essence, as the home that God created for humans.
Humans participated in the ultimate imitatio Dei, creating the universe.
Covenant, as it turns out, involves the opportunity to return the favor.
So then what? After the Mishkan is constructed, after the universe created anew, this time on a scale that allows human participation, that invites the divine into human engagement, then what?
Then, well, we get to use it. It is a masterful ordering, as we move from the creation of this sacred space into the sacrificial logistics of Leviticus—what happens in the Mishkan, and how, and how not to, and what does this service look like, and maybe even some of why. We will get there.
But for us, now, we have the creation of the space of the divine indwelling, the holding of the container for immanence, for God’s presence in this world. This, then, becomes the blueprint for us—service and connection with the divine in the Mishkan, then the Mikdash, the Temple.
The Temple was destroyed—first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and then by the Romans in 70 C.E. Now we have no Temple, we cannot travel from our farms to Jerusalem three times a year on the pilgrimage festivals.
But, in the most Jewish of ways, we still, nonetheless, have the story of the Temple, the story of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.
As the Bible scholar William H. C. Propp put it,
The act of reading becomes our pilgrimage, a rite of passage that imbues our lives with transformation and transcendence. The time we spend in reconstructing the Tabernacle is sacred time; the image held in our minds is sacred space…Through its contemplation, the reader can leap from the Here-and-now to the There-and-then, back to [the people of] Israel's first constitution as a nation and civilization - and even beyond to the First Time, when the only mind was God.
And even now, even without a formal home for the divine, there is still the divine, manifest in the world.
There is always the divine, the Holy, the Big Bigness, the Presence, the Glory.
Whatever words work for you.
The great interconnected flow of all things.
Even with only a direction in which to pray, we continue to find access anyway.
We always do.
Even if we are not the types who pray, even if we don’t look in any particular direction.
All the doors in my home are open.
There’s a pulse outside I want to hear.
The phone’s unplugged.
The pastiche of you on me would be unforgivable now.
If there’s a god squirming around
she sees me & is me.
I wish the birds were souls, invisible.
I wish they were what I think they are; pure sound.
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