While the first two parshaot (Terumah and Tetzaveh) describe, in theoretical terms all of the implements and vestments that would be utilized in the Tabernacle (and later the Jerusalem Temple), their actual creation is left to the final two parshaot of Shemot (Vayakhel and Pekudei). Everything is described in loving detail, from the Ark of the Covenant to the altars and even the vestments of the priests. The list of materials is long and complex, leaving one to wonder how all these were to be found in the Sinai desert (or even in the loot taken from Egypt). At the end of these parshaot, the hope expressed in the 8thverse of Terumah seems fulfilled, “They shall make me a sanctuary (מקדש) and I will dwell among them.” They have certainly created a physical focus (even a house) of holiness for the entire people.
Yet, there is a jarring sense as one reads the verse. It is hard not to note that it says, “in their midst (בתוכם) and not “in its midst” (בתוכו). Despite the beautiful tabernacle with all its accoutrements, the holiness of the Divine does not dwell in “it,” but rather in the people who created it. Indeed, as one reads Ki Tisa (the middle parsha of the five) even the assumption that the Tabernacle as a necessary focus to find holiness is questioned.
Parshat Ki Tisa includes the dramatic story of the Golden Calf. The calf surprisingly serves the same function as the Tabernacle. It is a visible and touchable focus for the ineffable Divine presence. It was erected to placate the people, as they faced the insecurity of an unknowable God, and a long absent leader (Moses still on the mountain after nearly 40 days). The rabbis tell us that this parasha is out of place, belonging actually before Terumah, implying perhaps that God realized that the people, just freed from Egyptian slavery, needed a physical focus enabling them to feel God’s presence in the world. A focus that would appropriately be fulfilled through the Tabernacle.
Ki Tisa teaches that ultimately such a dependence is a crutch, that God’s presence is real, yet not expressed through physicality. Towards the end of the parasha Moses asks to see God’s face. While this is rejected, God does say “you may see my back.” Yet, when the moment comes Moses sees nothing, and yet experiences the true presence of the Divine, “Adonai, Adonai God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth…” which we now call the “Thirteen Attributes of God.” These expressions of God’s mercy and forgiveness, Moses learns, are true expression of holiness.
Later in the Torah in parshat Kidoshim we learn that such expressions of holiness are not limited to God. Instead, God tells us “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God am holy.” We can imitate God’s actions and thus create holiness in our midst. “Just as the Eternal is called “merciful and gracious,” you, too, be merciful and gracious, and give gratuitously
to all. Just as the Holy One is called “righteous,” …You, too, be righteous. Just as
the Holy One Blessed be He is called "kindly," — you, too, be kindly.” Holiness is not in a box or its elaborate accoutrements, no matter how beautiful. Instead holiness is in the midst of the people as they aim to be Holy – through their actions – because our experience of God as holy is through action.
As Shemot ends, the last words of Parshat Pekudei record that with the completion of the Tabernacle the people felt the Divine presence as they began their journey to the promised land. Pillars of cloud and fire were with them through their entire journey. Yet, though they felt the presence of holiness, in truth it was not created or enabled by the Tabernacle. Instead, it was truly enabled by their Godly actions. Today, as our journey continues, we have no tabernacle. Yet God’s presence – holiness – is with us as we work to live lives in imitation of the Divine.