Please support our work with a fiscal year-end gift. Thank you!

Exodus ‘Wings of Desire’: God’s Presence in the Tabernacle

By Rav Rachel Adelman

Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

After the pyrotechnics at Sinai—lightning, thunder, the blast of the shofar, and the Mountain, wrapped in smoke and flame (Exod. 19:18-19, 20:18)—God adjures Moses: “have them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them [ve-shakhanti be-tokham]” (25:8). What follows are the detailed instructions for making the Mishkan, the “Tabernacle” or “Tent of Meeting” where God would come to reside [] among the people. But how can the Divine Presence [Shekhinah] condense into a confined space? Is God not everywhere, intangible yet ubiquitous? Here, we hear the still small voice in the wake of Revelation, how Israel might take the Divine Presence with them. And it is contingent on a paradox—the enigma of the human heart, yearning for union with God while acknowledging the elusive nature of that Presence.

The very detailed orders to build the Tabernacle in Parashat Terumah and Tetzaveh (chapters 25-31) and their fulfillment in Veyakhel and Pekudei (chapters 35-40), take up most of the second half of the Book of Exodus, interrupted only by the account of the Sin of the Golden Calf and its resolution in Ki Tissa (chapters 32-34). According to rabbinic tradition, the commandment to build the Mishkan follows Israel’s apostasy. In this re-ordering, the collective building project provides healing, a means of channeling the people’s desire to contain the presence of God in their midst. Before they had this holder, they followed the solid effigy of a false god. Just forty days after hearing the words, “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (20:4), Aaron gathered the people’s gold rings, cast all the precious metal into a mold to make the molten calf, declaring: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4). To paraphrase Hamlet: “O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to” idolatrous ways! (Hamlet I:ii, l. 155-156). How does the Mishkan present an antidote to this betrayal?

Where Temples in the Ancient Near East were furnished with the statue of a god at its center, the Israelite sanctuary had none. Instead, there were two golden statues of cherubim, their wings spread over the cover or mercy seat of the Ark of the testimony:

The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the Ark; and in the Ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Exod. 25:17-22, NRSV)

The cherubim in Mishkan frame the space in which the Divine Presence comes to dwell. From there Moses would “hear the voice speaking to him,” emerging “from above the mercy seat that was on the Ark of the covenant from between the two cherubim” (Num. 7:89). The cherubim guard this sacred space, just as they do poised at the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24), their wings spread like a protective bower that further obscures the Divine Presence.

Both the Calf and the Ark’s cover with its two cherubim were made from molten gold. Yet there is a critical difference between them. The calf was made of solid gold whereas the cherubim and mercy seat frame an empty space, a tokh, through which God speaks. As Avivah Zornberg observes: “The heart of the Mishkan is the space between the wings of the cherubim which, form an unbridgeable distance, at opposite ends of the golden Kapporeth (the Cover of the Ark), gaze towards each other, even as they gaze downwards at the Ark. That oblique gaze frames the space between the cherub figures.”[1] The cherubim represent the antithesis of the molten Calf—an icon, an external object upon which the Israelites could fixate their desire. With their shy gaze downward, the cherubim gesture at the Presence that eludes fixation.

In the words of the midrash, God commands the making of the Mishkan as an invitation to forgive: “Let the gold of the Mishkan atone for the gold from which the Calf was made…” (Tanchuma Terumah 8). The healing entails a sublimation and transformation of the golden icon, from a fixed molten form to a frame for empty space, a tokh, between the cherubim. Yet the command, “Have them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among it/them [be-tokham]” (v. 8) implies an ambiguity. Does it refer to God dwelling among the people, really within their hearts’ desire for the divine presence, or to the external manifestation of the divine within the Tabernacle (v. 22)?

In another midrash, the mystery is conveyed by the tell-tale beating heart:

“[Tell the Israelites to] bring for me an offering [terumah]…” (Exod. 25:2), and it is written, “I am asleep but my heart is awake…” (Song of Songs 5:2). The Community of Israel said… “I am asleep”, because of the deed of the Golden Calf, “but my heart is awake”, when God knocks, as in “bring for me an offering…”, “[Listen! My beloved is knocking]. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love…’” (Song loc. cit.). How long shall I wander homeless? “….for my head is wet with dew….” (ib.). Therefore, make me a sanctuary, so that I will not be left outside. (Exodus Rabbah 33:3)

In the quote from Song of Songs, the woman lies in a stupor, unable to rise and respond to her lover’s knock at the door. But her heart is awake; she can feel it beating within her, while the rapping resounds outside of her. Likewise, the Community of Israel is asleep, passive, immobilized by despair about the Sin of the Golden Calf, yet she hears the knocking of God in the command to bring offerings towards the making of the Tabernacle. It is both the divine command from without and the desire within that wakes Israel from spiritual torpor.

The image of the beating heart, echoed in the knock at the door, gestures at an essential mystery about God’s in-dwelling. The space between those wings of the cherubim is metonymic for the hollow within the human heart. God will dwell betokham, both within the people’s desire and at the center of the Mishkan, between [betokh] the cherubim. The people, borne on eagles’ wings and brought to God’s self (Exod. 19:4), now create winged beings by which God might be brought close to them. May we continue to hear that “still small voice” knocking, in the essential mystery about sacred presence and absence, in the legacy of past failures and divine forgiveness!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, She received her PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When she is not writing books, articles or divrei torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.

[1] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture (New York: Doubleday 2001), 339.


Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.


recommended posts

Community Blog Hebrew College Partners with Middlebury School of Hebrew for Summer Immersion Program

Community Blog Remembering Rabbi Ellen Bernstein z”l

Leviticus Finding Elusive Joy