We are familiar with the enduring words of this week’s Torah portion:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them… They will build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:1-2, 8 )

For the next fifteen chapters–over a third of the book of Exodus–the Torah will elaborate the details of the mishkan, the tent that enables God to live among the Israelites. For the ancient rabbis of the Talmud, the mishkan was both signified and signifier: a home for God, but also the symbolic focal point for understanding what it means to be human in the world. Linguistically, these chapters bear a close relationship with the opening chapter of Genesis; substantively, they are framed by the concept of Shabbat, on which it is forbidden to build the mishkan. And thus for the Rabbis, the work of building the mishkan was analagous with the work of creating the world–it is the human conterpart to the divine work of Genesis.

One of the midrashim on these opening verses helps us to appreciate how truly radical this concept is. The midrash begins by quoting a verse from Song of Songs: “I slept, but my heart was awake, when I heard my lover knocking and calling. “Open to me, my treasure, my darling, my dove, my perfect one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”” (5:2).

The midrash unpacks this verse in light of the mishkan, weaving together the words of Song of Songs with the words of the Torah portion: “The house of Israel says, ‘I have grown weary (I sleep) from my long exile, but the Holy One (who is called “my heart”) is still awake. I despair (I sleep) from from my failure to uphold the commandments, but the merit of my ancestors stands in my stead, and my heart awakes. I despair (I sleep) from the sin of the Golden Calf, but the Holy One knocks for me, saying, ‘Take for me an offering, Open to me, my treasure, my darling. How long will I walk without a home? My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night. So make Me a sanctuary, so that I do not have to dwell outside.'” (Shemot Rabbah 33:3)

In this midrash, the people of Israel despair over their failures and shortcomings. Most notably, the midrash positions the building of the mishkan after the sin of the Golden Calf (which in the Torah happens in the middle of the account of the mishkan; the order of events is the subject of a long debate among the commentators). Yet God’s answer is not only forgiveness, but seeking encounter. God commands the Israelites to create a home for God not only in spite of, but perhaps in answer to, their human frailties and failings. Not only does God need a home, which is radical enough (You created the world, but You can’t create a home for yourself?!), but God asks the Israelites to create that home even after they have rebelled against God!

In an excellent recent book, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the mishkan is a blueprint for community-building. Even after all the miracles of the Exodus, even after the revelation at Sinai, what truly binds the people together is the act of creating something as a community–the act of shared contribution and building. The midrash reminds us of this, and how desperately both we and God need that experience, sharing in the act of creation. That is the fulfillment of our role as tzelem elohim, God’s images on earth.

Shabbat shalom.