When our kids were little, we taught them how to pack for a trip all by themselves. Even before they could read, I would draw pictures of various parts of clothing, with a number next to it, based on how long we’d be gone. They could choose whatever pants, shirts, socks, they wanted, and there weren’t any arguments later over what had gone into the suitcase. They usually chose their favorite articles of clothing, and whatever “love” object they wanted. Right from a young age, they were answering the question, “What do you take with you when you travel?” Do you leave your most valuable, meaningful possessions behind so they’re safe, or do you keep them with you?
We are at the end of Shemot (Exodus). We’ve spent the last fifteen chapters reading in tremendous detail about how to build a holy space, the Mishkan. Tremendous detail? Excruciating detail. Obsessive detail. All to build something that was not only valuable in its materials, but also portable in its design. This was going to be the place where God dwelled among the people (Va’asuli mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham” – Make Me a holy place, and I will dwell among them). (Exodus 25:8) So, if God was going to be dwelling there, it would have to be pretty impressive. We usually associate impressive edifices with an inherent permanence. We build important things so that they will last, stand as testimony to love, respect, glory, holiness. Something that is temporary couldn’t possibly convey the same gravity and importance.
But for the Israelites in the desert, it was just the opposite. Yes, the materials were of the best quality, and the instructions were laid out with great specificity, but it was, at its core, impermanent. The Israelites travelled for many years with their impermanent mishkan, building and rebuilding it, but I don’t think it got “old.” For those of you who have ever put up and taken down a sukkah (hut)in your backyard or at the synagogue, you know this is no easy task. Yet, each year we do it in our family; the order in which we put up the posts, sides and walls—all feel familiar. There is great love and even reference as we take out old decorations and put them in their special spots on the walls. I would think it would have been the same for the Israelites, as they lovingly put away the mishkan materials, pack them up, and set them up again in the next place down the road. Eventually when they came to the Land, they built the Temple. Even though that structure was more substantial, it too, was ultimately impermanent. The Temple was destroyed twice, and has yet to be rebuilt. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t dwell among us anymore, though. We’ve made many a sanctuary for the Divine in which to dwell, but there’s more to that idea than the thousands and thousands of brick-and-mortar synagogues across the world.
Here, we come to a secret of our longevity. Our Mishkan/temple no longer stands. The dolphin skins, wooden tent poles and copper lavers no longer exist. Yet we still can become the “krovim” the ones close to God, because we have brought our mishkan with us. We travel with it no matter where we go—our relationship with God goes beyond the four cloth walls of a mishkan, or the tangible doors to our local synagogues. How we live our lives Jewishly, with the values and teachings infused into our daily awareness—this is the mishkan that brings God to dwell among us. We are travelers indeed, and we pack everything we need to have with us; in our liturgy and texts, to be sure, but in addition, our mishkan has become the interwoven fabric of our memories and those are easy to pack.
Anita Silvert is a freelance writer living in Northbrook.