The Mishkan as Model

This portion's attention to detail speaks to the kind of vigilance we need in creating a just society.


Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Terumah, the Israelites receive the blueprints for a majestic tent–the mishkan–that will eventually house the magnificent Ark of the Covenant. As we read the vivid description, we can picture its grandeur. During the Israelites’ journeys through the desert, the mishkan serves as a portable temple, with the home of God’s indwelling, the Ark, at its center (Exodus 25:8). The Israelite tribes camp around it, placing it at the heart of the Nation.

american jewish world serviceWhile the detailed beauty of the Ark sounds stunning, the medieval commentator Abravanel wonders about its design. The first of the Divine Laws prohibits graven images of any kind, replications of any being, heavenly or earthly (Exodus 20:4). But upon the cover of the ark perch two cherubim, winged human forms (Exodus 25:20). It would seem that by including these forms, God is breaking God’s own Law.

From the Human Encounter

There is a possible resolution to this seeming contradiction in the very details of space and shape that make this parashah and its focus on design so fascinating. “From above the cover,” says God (Exodus 25:22), “from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant,” God will meet with humanity. The voice of God emerges not from the mouth of any graven image, but from the empty space between two faces. 

From the place of human encounter emerges the Divine Voice. Certainly, in every act of true listening, of honest speaking, and thus in every act of compassion, in every heartfelt encounter, in every ethical interaction we can hear God’s voice.

In other words, if idolatry is to hear the voice of God emerging from a block of gold, then the opposite of idolatry is to see God’s face in every human being, to hear God’s voice emerging from the relationship of any two beings, face to face, eye to eye, ish el achiv–from one person to another (Exodus 25:20).

Yet the presence of the sacred in human interactions does not occur automatically in the encounter. There is a crucial foundation upon which this relationship takes place, a vital basis where our relationships must be rooted.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.

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