Have you ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture without a picture of the final product? Or a puzzle without knowing what the completed image will be? While some may like the challenge of the unknown, for most it is difficult to proceed without an idea of what the ultimate creation is supposed to look like. The result? What we end up building may not have been the intended outcome at all. That leads to the question: Does it really matter?
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). God wants the people to build a holy space for the divine presence and sets forth a lengthy and detailed description for the Tabernacle and its furnishings. For comparison’s sake, the passage in Genesis that retells the creation of the world is only 34 verses long and does not include much description. Here, however, the passage is nearly three times as long and specifies dimensions, building materials, decorative fabrics and the like.
Why all the detail? In Genesis, God created alone. There was no need for an elaborate plan. Here, it is a different story. The Tabernacle is to be the work of many people; from bringing the building materials to doing the actual construction, many individuals will be a part of the process. Therefore, God’s plans had to be clear enough for others to understand what had to be done.
But did the Israelites know exactly what they were creating? The text implies that Moses was shown God’s vision for the Tabernacle. It was, after all, meant to be an earthly replica of heavenly constructions. In theory, God could have shown an already existing structure and instructed the people to copy it, but there is no clear evidence that Moses was given an actual blueprint or image. Instead, he was shown a detailed description of the finished product. Since the instruction was given in pieces, the people must have had conversations about the size and quality of the objects they were asked to build, uncertain how it would all come together. When it was finished, perhaps it matched the divine image exactly, but maybe it didn’t. Was it built to the correct specs? Was it symmetrical? Did all the fabrics woven together match perfectly? Did it really matter?
It does matter if the goal was perfection, a Tabernacle built exactly according to God’s specifications. It matters if the goal was to create the perfect dwelling for God’s presence. It matters if we dismiss all the factors that led up to that final product — the creativity of the builders, the unique gifts of the people, the camaraderie as both tried to interpret God’s words and intentions. It matters if these verses describe only the physical Tabernacle that will be carried by the Israelites throughout their journey.
But there is more to it than that. These verses cannot just be about the tangible, physical nature of the Tabernacle, the ark constructed and carefully adorned, designed to carry the tablets of the Covenant at Sinai. Yes, this is meant to be where God dwells, God’s “home” if you will. And yet, we don’t truly believe that God can only be in one place; God is everywhere, and in everyone. Therefore, these verses must go beyond the physical and include the metaphorical Tabernacle as well.
The challenge is not only to build physical dwellings for God, such as the Tabernacle or a sanctuary, but also to build sacred space for God within our hearts. It has been suggested that the difference between the shorter and simpler description of the work of Creation and the longer, more detailed passage here reflects this difficulty. It was certainly not easy for the Israelites to build such a complex structure in the wilderness. It is not easy for us either — to make room for God in ourselves. But the Israelites did the work and so must we.
For a piece of furniture, it is important to build the right thing so it lasts. For a puzzle, one needs to know if it is complete, if all the pieces fit together as they should. In our Torah text, it is not necessarily the completed Tabernacle that connects us, but rather, it is the process of creating holy space together, a place for God’s sheltering presence to dwell among us and within each of us. That is what really matters. PJC
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is a rabbi and educator in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.