The Tabernacle: God’s Glory
What is God?
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The first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘tabernacle’ is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They may not know what a tabernacle is, but they sure know what a choir is and what Mormons are. The tabernacle part is not all that important. So what is a tabernacle anyway? It refers to the Mishkan – the holy structure that housed the things necessary for the sacrificial offerings and the Ark of the Covenant. It was through the Mishkan that the glory of God was revealed.
The Mishkan represented a new phase in the relationship between Hashem and the Israelites. The construction plans for the Mishkan are given in almost excruciating detail in several of the last chapters of Exodus. It is difficult to follow and even more difficult to fathom why all this is necessary. But at the end we are told that ‘The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the k'vod (glory of) Hashem filled the Mishkan; and Moshe was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the k’vod Hashem filled the Mishkan’ (Exodus 40:34-35).
In the book of Leviticus, following the long description of all the offerings, there is an installation ceremony for the priests (Aaron and his sons). The ceremony lasted for seven days and was followed by an eighth day in which those same priests were to bring a series of offerings so that ‘Hashem will be revealed to you today’ (9:4). Moshe announces all this to the entire Israelite nation while they are ‘standing before Hashem’ (v.5) Moshe then tells Aaron, ‘This is the thing that Hashem has commanded, do it and the glory of Hashem will be revealed to you’ (v.6). Finally, after the offerings are complete: ‘Moshe and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of Hashem was revealed to all the people. And fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed the offerings on the altar, and when all the people saw this they exalted and fell upon their faces’ (v.23-24).
But it doesn’t end there. Immediately following this moment of glorious success, the event is spoiled by a strange incident: ‘And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took a fire pan and placed a fire and incense upon it, and offered before Hashem a strange fire that he (He) had not commanded them. And a fire came out from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem’ (10:1-2). Moshe then seems to explain to Aaron that this tragedy had to happen because Hashem said, ‘I will be sanctified among those close to Me and in the presence of all the people I will be honored’ Aaron, upon hearing this explanation, ‘was silent’ (v.3). The bodies are removed from the Mishkan and the encampment and the procedure continues more or less as planned.
This is a strange one. Why exactly this whole thing happened is not clarified in the text. There is no explanation of what this ‘strange fire’ was, or why it should have been the cause of the death of two of the priests. This happened right in the middle of the high point of the installation ceremony, which should have been a supreme moment of revelation of Hashem’s glory. Instead, it turned into what looks like a catastrophe.
What does any of this have to do with Hashem’s glory or sanctity or honor? Does the glory of Hashem only come with disaster, with demonstration of terrible power and awesome authority? Is there no revelation of glory through more pleasant things like a beautiful sunrise or a moment of tranquility or a feeling of oneness? Was Moshe’s attempt at explanation of the tragedy a genuine reason or was it a way to console his brother Aaron? Was Aaron’s silence a rejection of this explanation or did he come to terms with his loss? Finally, what really is the k’vod Hashem?
The truth is that this whole business of God’s glory is unclear. What really is the difference between Hashem, on the one hand, and, glory of Hashem, on the other? Aren’t they really the same thing? But if they are, then why use the term k’vod Hashem to begin with? The classic answer to this question is that there is indeed a difference, though the exact nature of that difference is the subject of great debate. The mainstream explanation gets us into a core subject of Judaism – the idea of the ‘dwelling presence of Hashem’, or Shechina. This mysterious word is quoted with abandon but rarely discussed with clarity.
The great debate between the philosophical and mystical schools of Judaism is whether or not the shechina/glory is a created entity. According to the philosophical view, God created this presence as a way of being seen – almost like clothing that an invisible person might wear to become at least partially visible. According to the mystics the presence is more like an extension or emanation from God’s very essence. This presence can appear in an infinite variety of forms, for every creation could potentially be a manifestation of Gods’ glory. The Shechina, accordingly, is God’s created or non-created presence, God’s glory manifest. It is not God’s essence, which is imperceivable by any creation. As long as the Creator-creation dichotomy remains, the creation cannot perceive the Creator. When that dichotomy vanishes, they are one and the same. The Shechina, on the other hand, is perceivable by the creations, either because it is itself a creation, or because it is the perceivable manifestation of God.
Now we can get back to our little story in Leviticus. The Tabernacle, with all its specifically constructed features, was meant to be a man-made revelation of God’s glory. The presence filled the Tent of Meeting to the degree that Moshe could not enter it. It was not only visible but palpable. It had a tangible quality to it, such that it could be felt and not penetrated. When the priests’ installation procedure was finished this presence was detectable to everyone, even those who didn’t take part in the actual ceremony. It was there to be seen, for that was the reason of its being. It induced a feeling of exaltation in all who were aware of it. They spontaneously ‘fell on their faces’ - a reaction that can only be expressed by the simple and mysterious feeling of awe.
But things don’t end there. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought their own ‘strange’ fire and offered it before Hashem. What was ‘strange’ about the fire? We really don’t know, other than the simple fact that they hadn’t been commanded to do this. It isn’t clear from the Hebrew text who didn’t command them, either Hashem or Moshe, but it is clear that they did this on their own. The bottom line is that they simply did something they weren’t commanded. They went off program. They put their own two cents into what was meant to be God’s show. Is this really worthy of death?
The answer, to those who understand the significance of God’s glory, is a qualified ‘yes’. It is ‘yes’ because God’s glory should not and could be tainted by the input of man, no matter how well intentioned that input is. We have to recognize that we are the creations, not the Creator. This is a crucial component of the concept of glory. Glory may be a creation or it may not be, but it is from the hand of God, not of man. Glory of Hashem is divine.
Rainbows are the work of God. They are splendid and wonderful to a mind-boggling degree. They reveal the glory of God. The Tabernacle, a human construction, was designed to be a conduit for this glory. It worked and the glory was revealed to all. But then two people intervened who wanted to put in a little bit of a human touch to this glory. The fire that had just consumed the offerings on the altar now consumed these human offerings. For that is what they were. If a man or woman wishes to share in God’s glory, they must be willing to sacrifice themselves as an offering. This might not result in death, but it inevitably results in giving something up. The glory is God’s, not the person’s. In revealing God’s glory one can take no glory for oneself.
Moshe explained all this to Aaron. Aaron’s sons may have meant well, but their well intentioned offering had to be a sacrifice. They paid the ultimate price for their offering, harsh as it may seem to us. Perhaps that made their sacrifice all the greater. Was Aaron, their father, able to accept this consolation? The text is tantalizingly unclear on this important question, perhaps deliberately leaving us in a state of uncertainty. Aaron was silent. The Hebrew word used here for silence does not just indicate that he wasn’t voicing his feelings, but that he had managed to come to terms with the tragedy. He had the feeling of sadness like any father should, but his sadness was colored with silence. Perhaps there was emptiness over his loss, but it was loss that revealed a greater cause.
Perceiving the Image
Is the Shechina really an image of God or is it something else? To the traditional Jew it is the image of God. It is God down here with us, being there when we need help, walking with us along the beach when we’re lonely, and serving as a divine Guide throughout our lives. But is this ‘presence’ really God, or is it the next best thing? Sticking by strict philosophical definitions, it really isn’t God since it is a creation of God. But that may be being a little too rigid. All of God’s images, in a sense, are not really God either. They are how we see God, how God appears to us. They are really God as viewed through a specific lens. Is the Shechina any different?
Our vote is ‘no’. A lens and a created presence are really two sides of the same coin. That coin is God. On one side we have God viewed through a certain perspective. Whether the Guide of destiny, or the Personal deity, or the Lord, or the Man of war, or the Lawgiver, we are still looking through a lens at God. This Shechina, the other side of that coin, is not God through a lens but God’s glory manifested in a perceivable form. It is a palpable presence in the world, a ripple in the fabric of reality that is somehow different from everywhere else. It may have been the fire at the Burning Bush. It may have been the Pillar of Cloud that accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness. It may be a tangible presence in a particular place or time that somehow cues its perceiver that something is different here, something is holier. It is forever vague and difficult to clarify, but those who have sensed it know that they have sensed something different.
This is really what this glory is all about. Glory has a rather Biblical flavor to it and it will always be associated with things Biblical. But that doesn’t mean that we latecomers cannot partake of this glory. We can contribute to it, if we are willing to make the sacrifice of giving all the glory to God and taking none for ourselves. Such a sacrifice may require deep silence on our part, to realize what we have taken part in. But we can also simply sit back and observe it. It is happening all around us, though we are only aware of it at moments of inspiration. It is always there, waiting to be awakened and noticed, to be exalted and praised, to be glorified.
There is a good deal of confusion in Jewish circles about the true nature of the Shechina. It is usually identified with God, though those in the know understand that there is a difference. How does the worship of the Shechina not cross the line of worshiping a creation?
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