The key figure in the building of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – whose construction details fill the last parashiyot of the book of Exodus is a man named Bezalel. Part general contractor, part artisan, part engineer, part community organizer, Bezalel is given the instructions conveyed by God to Moses and turns them into an actual structure. The only thing is, Moses doesn’t communicate all of the details to Bezalel, just the general outline. Bezalel has to figure it out as he goes.
And figure it out he does, mobilizing a large community of weavers, carpenters, shleppers, and more, to actually build the very mishkan that God showed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Without precise instructions, how does Bezalel know what to construct, and how? Rashi’s answer is that “Bezalel’s opinion was attuned with what Moses had been told on Sinai.” ‘Attuned’ is an interesting word. Aviva Zornberg calls it ‘artist’s intuition’ and suggests that “Bezalel simply knew God’s will and consummated it.”
It’s worth taking a step back to consider the mishkan’s purpose. The mishkan serves both as the community’s gathering place and as the space that contains the Divine Presence. It’s not just a building project, it’s holy space, the landscape in which sacred community happens. In Zornberg’s lovely formulation, the mishkan “is a symbolic world that mirrors God’s own creation of the world, a formal expression of a large imagining.” The large imagining is that God can be present in the world and that human community invites that Presence down to earth.
We, the people of Israel, have been engaged in that sacred task from the very beginning. The mishkan is version one. The mikdash – the temple in Jerusalem was another version. The many synagogues we have collectively built in the two millennia since the destruction of the second Temple are yet another version. As R Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev teaches “the instruction was not to make the same form always. Only according to the spirit of prophecy of the time should we form here below the pattern of the furnishings.”
Today, in a strange and difficult moment, we have sought to build the form and version that we need right now. It’s of a virtual nature, entirely without walls, and yet it manages to gather us in sacred community and seems to summon up God’s loving presence in our midst in real time. The ‘spirit of prophecy of this time’ says that we need to keep our physical distance from one another and at same time stay spiritually and emotionally connected and attuned. Welcome to our new virtual mishkan. Its form may differ from its predecessors; its large imagining and essential purpose remain exactly the same.
V’asu li mikdash, says the Torah – ‘Make for Me a sanctuary’ v’shakhanti b’tokham – ‘and I will dwell in their midst.’ Our sanctuary is wherever each of us is; my hope and prayer is that God’s loving Presence will be there with us.