Building the Tabernacle through Social Distance

This past Shabbat we concluded the book of Exodus in our Torah reading cycle with the double portion of Vayakhel-Pikudei, reading the description of the construction and the assembly of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is to be the Israelite’s portable sacred space and community center that they take with them on their journey through the Promised Land.

It’s always been a powerful image for whenever I read this section for it is Moses alone who puts together the different parts of the Tabernacle. Like some ancient IKEA furniture, Moses takes the parts and assembles them into the whole. When he puts the last two pieces together, God’s Presence–in the form of a cloud–descends and dwells among the Israelites.

I’ve always been struck by the bittersweet image of Moses working alone–we already know that he is set apart from the people because of the role of leadership he plays. It is part of what it means to be a leader, to be both of and apart from the community, working on behalf of the whole.

And also, in constructing the Tabernacle and thereby instituting a new system of worship and sacrifice, Moses is doing an act that will shift the community in a way that will result in a change of organization and leadership. Moses is not in charge of the Tabernacle–his brother Aaron is–and so building the Tabernacle means a shift away from Moses’s particular form of leadership.

Now as we read this story, we can be moved by the concept of separation and solitude. Moses carried on this work alone. And now we are finding ourselves more and more in that situation–separate and possibly alone–as we do what we can to limit the spread of this virus. While we can not physically be in the same place, we are trying to find different ways of connecting.

And while that can be challenging and isolating, we remember that Moses, through his working alone, is building sacred community. It is his work of separation that allows God to be present among the people.

And indeed, if we go back to the beginning of the portion, we are reminded that although Moses assembled the Tabernacle (after Betzalel constructed it), it was the entire community that contributed to it. At the beginning of the portion we read:

Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites: This is what God has commanded: Take from among you gifts to God, everyone whole hear so moves him shall bring them–gifts for God: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense, lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastplate.

Exodus 35:4-9

Everyone whose heart moves them contributes to the building of the Tabernacle. And everyone gives whatever they can. Each gift is a step closer to creating the sacred.

And now too we all have something to give. We, like Moses, give our distance and solitude. We separate from community in order to strengthen our community. It is our work of separation that allows God to be present among us.

The description of the gifts of the Israelites is beautiful, a multitude of media, materials and color. We are not building communal sacred spaces at this point, rather the “Tabernacle” is in our own homes and in our own hearts. So in the spirit of this portion, we can ask, what beauty are you contributing? What are you doing to build your Tabernacle these days? What special gift are you creating for your home or giving yourself in these days of quarantine?

And as we conclude reading a book of the Torah, I remind you of the traditional words of blessing we recite, which have particular significance at this time: “hazak, hazak, venithazek,” “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!”

Wishing you strength and beauty at this sacred time of isolation.

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