From "Other" to "Beloved"

It is easy to feel disconnected from those who are most unlike us.


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Our parashah, Vayakhel, describes not only Moses‘ call for donations to the construction of the Tabernacle, the mishkan, but also the community’s generous response. What is the role of the mishkan in the lives of the Israelites that caused them to respond so generously?

The mishkan, literally “dwelling-place,” is the place where God and Israel meet. It is here that God’s divine presence, the Shekhinah (from the same root as mishkan), dwells in the midst of Israel. It is the means by which God becomes present in the very center of the Israelite community and in the hearts of the Israelites.

american jewish world serviceGod instructs (Exodus 25:8): “let them make me a mishkan and I will dwell (shakhanti) within them (betokham).” The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hasidic master, reads this as “within them truly” (betokham mamash). That is, God will dwell within the very essence of each Israelite.

Prior to the mishkan, the Israelites’ relationship with the divine was with the transcendent, miraculous God of the splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, the people trembled in fear at the awesome revelation of the divine and retreated from a direct personal encounter (Exodus 19:16, 20:15-18).

Intimacy & Eroticism

It is only through the mishkan, the earthly dwelling-place of God, that a more intimate encounter becomes possible. Indeed, the mishkan is not just any meeting place, but, as both the midrash and Kabbalistic literature make clear, a place of great intimacy, the bridal chamber of God and Israel, where the truest level of intimacy can manifest after the marriage at Mount. Sinai (See the opening of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana and Zohar II 179b, I 239a).

The intimate erotic nature of the mishkan can be seen in the beautiful fabrics and the fine metals which are the adornments of the Shekhinah, the divine bride, and the hangings of Her wedding chamber (Exodus 35:5-8). Similarly, the cherubim in the mishkan, who face each other with outspread wings, are, we are told in the Talmud, in fact intertwined in an erotic embrace (Yoma 54a), and erotic significance is given to other verses and gifts.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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