Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: God's dwelling place

Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day’ (Vayakhel; Exodus 35:3).

Picture from the Parasha 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Picture from the Parasha 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
 ‘They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell in their midst’ (Exodus 25: 8)
The details of the construction of the Sanctuary, its furnishings and the garments of the kohanim are painstakingly and exquisitely described when God issues the commandment (in the portions of Truma and Tetzaveh) and again when the Israelites carry it out (in Vayakhel-Pekudei). If the construction of the Sanctuary merited such repetition, it must have been of supreme importance. Why? Conventional wisdom would have it, and all ancient and even modern religions would concur – that if indeed God created a world in which we may dwell, the least we can do is to return the compliment and create a Sanctuary in which the Divine Presence may dwell, at least here on Earth.
The Yom Kippur drama for forgiveness would certainly suggest that that High Priest “meets” (as it were) the Divine in the Holy of Holies once a year on the fast day which the hassidic world calls The Day of Holiness (Yom Hakadosh) just for that purpose.
However, the passage at the conclusion of Tetzaveh implies otherwise: “I shall set my meeting there [at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting] with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified with my glory. I shall sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the Altar; and I shall sanctify Aaron and his sons to minister to Me. I shall dwell among the children of Israel and I shall be their God, who took them out of the Land of Egypt in order that I may dwell in their midst; I am the Lord their God” (Ex. 29: 43-46).
Note that here God’s dwelling place is within the Jewish people – and not within the sanctuary. This is precisely what the introductory verse of the last five chapters of the Book of Exodus tell us: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst.”
But what does this mean? Can God enter a physical human being and reside within human physicality? Does God “incorporealize” within the Jewish nation? Is this not dangerously close to the Christian notion of God-in-man which Judaism considers heretical? Let us go back to the time of the miraculous splitting of the Re(e)d Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians and the salvation of the Jews. The Hebrews then sang, “God had become for me salvation; this is my God ‘ve’anvehu’” (Ex. 15:4).
The last word of this verse is difficult to translate. Targum renders it to mean “I shall make a house for Him” and since the Hebrew word naveh means a house; accordingly the meaning of the verse would be, “This is my God and I shall build him a Sanctuary” – presumably in which He will dwell on earth (a notion which we have already rejected).
Rashi maintains that the root word in ve’anvehu is “noy” which means beautiful: “This is my God and I shall beautify Him with my melodic prayers,” or as others would rather have it: “I shall beautify Him by beautifying His commandments,” by wearing the most beautiful tallit and tefillin, by decorating His succa with the finest adornments.
A Talmudic sage ingeniously splits the difficult word in two: “ani vehu,” He and I. According to this interpretation, the verse is rendered: “This is my God, and I shall do what He does, as it were: just as He feeds the hungry, so shall I, and just as He clothes the naked, so shall I.”
But perhaps the best interpretation of the verse is that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who renders it, “This is my God and I shall become His house; I shall attempt to express His will in every word I utter and every action I perform.”
Thus we see that the Bible never means to teach that God assumes physical form; the Bible is merely conveying that when a human being, or a nation, expresses the will of the Divine, that it is tantamount to having the Divine presence living among us, to having God truly in our midst.
A beloved mentor and friend, Reb Aharon Landau once told me of a hassid who saw a magnificent kiddush cup which he purchased for his rebbe. Handing over the gift, he requested that his rebbe “pray that Elijah the Prophet reveal himself to me at my Seder this year.” The hassid lived in anxious expectation, but he had no revelation of Elijah at his Seder.
When the disgruntled hassid complained, his rebbe gave him the following advice: “Next year, be sure to invite poor people to your home for the Seder. Have special concentration when the door is opened for Elijah and you will surely experience him!” Once again, the hassid followed the rabbi’s advice, certain that at the Seder he would witness the great prophet.
Alas, once again, he was again doomed to disappointment.
This time, he angrily confronted his rebbe. The rebbe took his hand and said, “But of course you experienced Elijah; when you invited 10 paupers you became Elijah the Prophet.”
This is the point of the biblical text. When we express God’s will with our every act and word, we becomes Godlike.
God becomes manifest in the world through such individuals.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.