by Alex Chapper
Having devoted hundreds of verses to the construction of the Mishkan – the portable desert sanctuary – one final account of everything that was included in this ambitious project is recorded in detail in Pekudei.
Now with the task complete as the Mishkan has been established and God’s instructions have come to fruition, we expect a triumphant climax to the people’s efforts as the Divine Presence fills God’s magnificent earthly abode.
And yet the book of Shemot closes with what appears to be the greatest let-down for all those involved, especially for Moses who managed the entire project. As we read: ‘And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan.
Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested upon it and God’s glory filled the Mishkan.’ (Shemot 40:34-35) Imagine having expended all that effort to create a space in this world worthy of the Divine Presence and then being excluded from it. It would appear there cannot be an earthly interface between an Infinite God and finite man.
What an anti-climax it must have been to have to stand at a distance admiring the combined handiwork, but being unable to experience a sense of closeness with God.
It is reminiscent of Moses’ earlier request: ‘God, please show me your glory’ which was a desire to understand His ways, to answer the question of how God, who is vaster than the universe, can live within the universe in a predictable, comprehensible way, not just in the form of miraculous intervention.
Rather disappointingly, on that occasion God responds by saying: ‘No living person can see My face.’
These two combined, force us to ask: What is the point? Why invest so much time and resources only to be denied access to the end product? Why do we even attempt to create a place for God in our world if ultimately we’re being told that we cannot perceive Him anyway?
The key to understanding this is provided by Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson) who explains that this all-encompassing cloud only appeared at the very moment that the Mishkan was first established in order to make known God’s nature.
Eventually, God would constrict Himself so as to dwell in a defined area only. In other words, at that specific moment, God was conveying a powerful and eternal message to us that He will completely fill any space that we create for Him.
Whether that is in a Mishkan, in our homes or in our hearts, wherever we make space for God in our lives, that is where we will most fully feel His presence.
• Alex Chapper is minister of Ilford Federation Synagogue and the Children’s Rabbi. Visit www.childrensrabbi.com