The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the portable Tabernacle painstakingly made to God’s exact instructions by the children of Israel. It seems that we have been reading about this building work for weeks – no other event in the journey the Israelites make in the wilderness has been told us in such detail. And now, finally, a year after Moses had told the people to prepare for leaving slavery in Egypt, the place is ready – and Moses is checking the last details, assembling the artefacts, making sure everything is as it should be.
There is a beautiful symmetry in the torah between the events here at the end of the book of Exodus and the ones at the beginning of the book of Genesis. And the words used in the narrative here are an echo of those used at the beginning of our text – just as Moses finishes the work he has done (va’y’chal Moshe et ham’lacha) so we are reminded that God in creating the Shabbat, also finishes the work he had done. V’y’chal elohim b’yom hash’vi’i et ha’m’lachto.
We are being deliberately reminded of the work of Creation as the Tabernacle is completed. We are being clearly prompted to understand that the creation of the sanctuary in the wilderness by the children of Israel is a mirroring of the divine creation of the universe. In making the world God created a home for us, and in the making of the tabernacle we echoed that creation – but for whom are we making a home? What are the responsibilities we are taking on by behaving within our microcosm like the divine creator of the universe?
When God told the people to make the tabernacle, the instruction was to build the place so that God would dwell among them. The purpose of the Mishkan wasn’t so much the place itself as the process of building with shared intention, the learning for the people was about larger issues than construction – it was about responsibility for others, about development of relationship, about removing oneself from the centre and instead becoming part of the whole system.
Building the tabernacle in effect transferred the power and the responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, and God was no longer simply the Mover behind the creation of the universe, but became part of human experience – Because of the building of the tabernacle, God now dwelled among the people who were created in the image of the divinity, they had built a place for the divine presence to enter the world – not in the tabernacle as such, but in the actions of the people who worked together to bring it into being.
By the end of the book of Exodus, God and people are truly partners in creation. It is an image we continue to use to this day – the idea that the world is not yet completed, that people are completing it. Unlike the creation of humanity at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the people are required not to be the passive consumers of the garden of Eden, nor are they to be so focussed on making a living that they cannot begin to consider other more metaphysical needs – by the end of the book of exodus we find that we are indeed to work hard in life, but for a greater cause than to earn our daily bread. Our hard work is the necessary ingredient to complete the work of creation begun with the words of God.
Something else emerges from the texts surrounding the building of the tabernacle which adds to our understanding of what it is to take on the responsibility for creation in our sphere as God does for the universe. Even a brief reading of the stories of the time in the wilderness will reveal a people who are unhappy with their lot, who foment rebellion, who wish to return to slavery rather than face the unknown of the future land. Already in the year before the building of the Mishkan – a year in which they had seen the terrible things done in Egypt, a year in which they had found freedom – a year in which the people were able to experience the Revelation at Sinai; already the people had rebelled, had complained, had tried to rid themselves of the leadership of Moses, and had begged Aaron to create the golden calf for them to worship. And yet this should have been the most wonderful and undemanding year of their lives. They were no longer enslaved, no longer routinely humiliated in the society in which they lived. They had food every day which simply fell from heaven and lay there for them to collect, their clothing never needed mending, and their shoes never wore out. All of their material needs were met. The leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam took over all their responsibilities and resolved the disputes that arose, there was absolutely nothing to worry about or concern themselves with. Like the first humans in the Garden of Eden, everything should have been perfect – yet somehow it wasn’t.
The Midrash notes the continual stream of complaining and notes too that God responded to it compassionately – “it was because of their constant murmurings that the Holy One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan” And the response works – the Midrash again highlights the fact that there were no complaints, no rebellions and no conflict recorded during any of the chapters in Torah that describe the building of the tabernacle: “the whole time they were engaged with the work of the Mishkan they did not grumble” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati).
So what do we learn from this, what did God bring about in the world with this task?
God understood that human beings need a sense of purpose, that we need to have a point to our existence, we need to be able to care about something and to be able to engage in meaningful activity. Without such endeavour we dissolve into bad tempered pointlessness, into destructive behaviour, into misery and self indulgent self-centredness. Left to our own purposelessness we create a sort of human tohu va’vohu, and it becomes harder and harder for human relationships to take root and for society to develop to the benefit of its members.
If the Midrash is right, that the people complained and the society disintegrated because everyone felt superfluous and without any role or consequence, then the notion of our taking on the task of being creator of our world is even more important, and it is increasingly vital that we consider just how we bring God into our Mishkan. How are we building the Mishkan today, creating the space for the divine to be experienced in our world? How are we making sure that everyone, not just the leadership or the elite are able to contribute to making our world a better place? It is a question we have to ask again and again – for the Mishkan is a travelling structure, constantly taken down and put up again, reflecting the reality that we re create our world each day, in every aspect of our lives.