On the Weekly Torah Portion of Pikudei

In this week’s Torah portion, pikudey (Exodus 38:21 – 40:38), the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle, comes to completion.

Towards the end of this portion, after describing the completion of the work, we are told:

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן: וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Y-H-V-H filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of Y-H-V-H filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)

But in previous portions we were told that the construction of the tabernacle was not so that God could be dwell in it, but rather in them, i.e. the Israelites. How is it that here we are told that God’s presence fills the tabernacle itself? This is also peculiar given the statement of Solomon, the builder of the first temple:

הִנֵּה הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לֹא יְכַלְכְּלוּךָ אַף כִּי הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִיתִי:
Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)

As mentioned in the commentaries on the last few portions, one way of understanding the tabernacle is as a metaphor for an individual. The Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, means “dwelling place”, and according to this interpretation, constructing a mishkan means creating a space within oneself for God’s presence, the shekhinah (a word that comes from the same root as mishkan) to dwell within oneself. The physical body can be seen as the tabernacle housing the shekinah.

When we are told that Moses could not get into the tabernacle when God’s presence filled it, we are told that in order to make one’s body the tabernacle, one’s individuality has to take the back seat. When the individuality takes the driver’s seat, then God’s presence (metaphorically represented by the cloud) moves away.

This comment about how the mishkan was used comes at the end of five weekly portions dedicated to its construction. It suggests to us that the whole purpose of these five portions is to instruct one regarding the proper mode of worship, through bitul (ביטול)– the surrender of the individuality in order for God to take over and for one’s body to become a living, breathing, walking and talking tabernacle.

As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)

In our age, the age of the individual, such a bitul, such a surrender of one’s individuality, may sound very scary, or at least alien. It would take a long discussion to show that it does not refer to the surrender of one’s free will or personality. I am traveling through Israel at the moment, and don’t have time to explore this topic in detail, but look forward to doing so in future posts.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)