by Rabbi Wendy Spears
I am privileged to partake in learning Torah from student rabbis at the congregation where I am a member. As a group, we are reading each portion together and sharing the various commentaries at the bottom of each page of text.
During the last session, we read about the architectural and interior design details of the traveling tabernacle of the Israelites which they created in the wilderness while they were wandering. It was a place for God to dwell amongst them. It seems like these details were recorded in order to recreate this tabernacle at some point in the future. Creating this beautiful place in the midst of their wanderings was an amazing and cooperative effort.
The English words ‘tabernacle’ and ‘tent of meeting’ obscure the multiplicity of interpretations that can be found in the Hebrew. The first word in Hebrew is mishkan. This has a similar meaning to Shekhina, the in-dwelling presence of the Divine that is in all people, a presence that the Jewish mystical tradition also imagines as the feminine aspect of the Divine. It is similar in meaning to the modern Hebrew word shekhoona, a neighborhood or residential area. I understand from this that there is a sense of closeness, of intimacy, from this word. It is something that brings spirituality close to hand, so much so that you could reach out or reach in, and touch it.
The special tent (Ohel Mo-ed) in the wilderness, that the people could pack up and take with them wherever they went, was a place for God to live in the midst the people. It was a real place filled with holiness (a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night). The Place, ha-makom, is another name for God; it is somewhere in your own reality where you can find a sense of spirit, of wholeness, and of peace. It could also be a physical place where you experience the Divine.
The last word, translated in English as ‘meeting,’ is mo-ed in Hebrew. This word has to do with time, with being present in the moment. Mo-adim l’simkha are times of joy, celebrations and holidays. Ed is also the word for ‘witness’ in Hebrew, so mo-ed might mean ‘witnessing.’
This phrase Mishkan Ohel Moed seems more mysterious the more I think about it. It seems to recognize a concept learned relatively recently in science: Space-Time. It can be about setting aside a place and time for ourselves to begin to breathe slowly and deeply, to recognize the sacred all around us and inside of us. It encourages us to recognize beauty and create beauty, so that we see ourselves as beautiful and spiritual. It is also a community endeavor; when we are in relationships, we can experience holiness that we couldn’t reach alone.
The journey of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is one of the core stories in Judaism that teaches us many of our values; hospitality, community, rest from work, the worthiness of adventure and pushing our boundaries. The idea of space-time certainly pushes our intellectual boundaries. It seems possible that the ancient Israelites were trying to express this idea with Mishkan Ohel Mo-ed, creating time and space to experience the sacred that was also portable across space-time. That is truly remarkable and worth exploring.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.