Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
For the first time in the Torah, with the completion of the Mishkan, the presence of God has a regular home, an earthly residence. And this home is not only for God; it is a “Tent of Meeting” for Israel as well. When God’s presence enters the Mishkan, it is clear that Israel’s work in building this sacred structure has been blessed. For the first time, by learning from past mistakes, Israel–all Israel–has a place to experience God.
In other words, the same Israelites who once sought to contain power and divinity within the idol of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) now create the Mishkan (Exodus 35-40), which, while made of the same materials and by some of the very same processes, emphatically does not attempt to contain God. Having been given an explicit opportunity to fall again into the trap of deifying something material, having been handed the opportunity to make a cage for God, the people instead create the Mishkan and regard it only as a space, not as a stand-in or a container for God (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 2001, pp. 480-481, 330-333). Once this purpose is established, God’s presence dwells in the Mishkan, in their midst; the process of t’shuvah (repentance) is complete.
Given the prohibitions against making images of God, the disaster of the Golden Calf, and the lesson the Israelites have begun to learn that God cannot be represented physically, we might expect the presence of God in the Mishkan to be without form altogether, invisible. Wouldn’t God’s complete lack of form at this moment make perfect sense in light of the Israelites’ newfound awareness and understanding?
However, God’s presence is manifested in the Mishkan in not one but two different ways: as a cloud by day and fire by night. Why does God come to the Israelites (and to us, as we read) in these very common forms? Wouldn’t the lesson of the Golden Calf be more clearly enforced if now God’s presence remained untainted by any physical form?