Exodus Making the Space to be Present
Since I became a parent, I’ve been reading the Torah through a new lens. I now see in God’s behavior toward the Children of Israel a range of lessons — positive and negative — on parenting. The God of the Hebrew Bible reminds me of a parent who is not yet sure-footed, whose behavior is somewhat erratic — making promises at one moment, testing at another, exploding with rage at yet others.
The beginning of the wilderness journey in the Book of Exodus reveals some of this unpredictable or disorganized behavior. In Exodus 14, Moses tells the anxious Israelites not to fear, to stand by and witness God’s deliverance. But God contradicts Moses, yelling at him to tell the Israelites to go forward. They are not yet working smoothly together as a team.
After the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, God continues to perform miracles for the Israelites, addressing their fears of hunger and thirst through Moses. Despite these acts, the Israelites continue to feel insecure in God’s attention, wondering, “Is the Lord present among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). Though the revelation at Sinai would seem to assure the people that God has chosen them, this fearsome experience happens at a distance, at the top of a mountain; to make matters worse, their leader and divine intercessor, Moses, disappears into the thick cloud, leaving the people at the foot of the mountain to experience the thunder and lightening, horns and smoke by themselves.
Reading this, it is hard for me to refrain from judging God’s parental instincts toward the Israelites, his fledgling, traumatized people. Why is God so oblivious or indifferent to their insecurity and fear? Why isn’t God more reassuring, more patient, more willing to treat them with “hesed” (loving-kindness) rather than “gevurah” (power)? I’m not unsympathetic to God — I often ask the same questions of myself as a parent, wishing I could be more patient and more loving when my children are petulant and needy. But I want something better from God.
So it’s with a feeling of relief and comfort that I turn to this week’s portion, in which God draws nearer to the Israelites, giving detailed instructions for the building of a portable Tabernacle with the promise, in return, of God’s abiding presence: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The grammar makes clear that God does not require the Tabernacle as a residence within which to dwell; rather, this structure will enable God to be present among the people.
This comforting promise of God’s presence is surrounded in the rest of the portion with very specific directions of materials, measurements and designs. The extreme detail does not make for scintillating narrative (except as one might wonder where, exactly, a nomadic desert people might come by precious metals and jewels, fine linen, dolphin skins, acacia wood and other rarities) and suggests the return of God the director, after the moment of warmth and loving kindness. But as I read the text with my parenting lens, I recognize the familiar need for structure and rules to create the boundaries of this sacred space wherein God and the Israelites can be together. God’s presence requires a safe container in which to cultivate a meaningful and mutually satisfying relationship with God’s people.
Who exactly, one might ask, are all these specific guidelines for? Does God need the Tabernacle to conform to these specifications or are the details intended to meet the needs of the Israelites, who — like an order-loving preschooler — crave structure and direction in the unformed space of the desert? Many commentators address these questions, wondering why a noncorporeal God would require an ornate physical dwelling place, and asserting, as the 15th century Portuguese interpreter Isaac Abravanel does, that the purpose of the Tabernacle is solely to provide a concrete reminder of God for the Israelites. The Tabernacle represents God’s immanence; it served “to implant in their souls that God walked in the midst of their camp,” but “not that the Lord, Blessed be He, required any of these things — heaven forfend!” (see Nehama Leibowitz, “New Studies in Shemot,” Part II, p. 472).
Parents are often told that their children need rules to provide them with boundaries and a sense of safety, but the truth is that these containers are helpful not only for children. I question, therefore, the conventional certainty that the Tabernacle exists for the people only, and that God has no need for its precise structure. Anyone in a relationship needs to know the boundaries that regulate it, needs frameworks to demarcate the relationship’s outlines. God and the Israelites are learning how to relate to one another within their new covenantal context.
God’s track record to this point has not been flawless. God has been impatient, aloof and angry; God has misjudged what the Israelites need and expressed frustration when they rebel or complain. Perhaps, too, God has misjudged God’s own needs. With the detailed instructions for the Tabernacle, God moves out of the elusive cloud and refocuses on a shared project and framework for their relationship. Reading the “parashah” (Torah portion) this year, it strikes me that this is just the kind of craft project they both needed.