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In this week’s parsha, Pekudei, we complete the book of Exodus. We also complete the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle used by the Israelites in the desert. As the long description of its planning and construction, which has taken up a few parshas, comes to a close, we are told of the project’s success: “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the tent (Exodus, 40, 34).” Success! A temple had been built for God, and He has chosen to dwell in it.
The next verse, however, strikes a somewhat problematic note: “And Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of God filled the Tabernacle.” If the Tabernacle is so holy, so full of God’s presence, that Moshe can not even enter it, what kind of Tent of Meeting will this be? How will God and Moshe be able to “meet”? To continue the relationship they had on Mt. Sinai, keep the conversation going, and, together, give the Jewish people more of God’s Torah?
The Rabbis, in the Midrash, explain. When the cloud of glory rested upon the Tabernacle, and God’s presence filled it, Moshe, in fact, could not join Him in the tent. When the cloud lifted, this indicated that God’s presence had retreated, and limited itself to the area above the Holy Ark, and then Moshe could enter the Tent and interact with Him.
This dynamic, of God limiting, shrinking, His presence in order to enable an interaction with others is called tzimtzum – limiting, making smaller. The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France, grandson of the great commentator Rashi) uses the word tzimtzum here when explaining our verses. Centuries later, the Ari (1534-1572) would popularize the notion of tzimtzum as part of his understanding of the creation of the world. In his explanation, God limited His presence, which, before the creation of the universe, was all there was, in order to make room for a physical creation – He shrunk Himself and thereby made space for the universe. Here, the concept specifically relates to the dynamic of God enlarging and then limiting His presence in the Mishkan: the cloud of glory first completely covered and filled the Tabernacle, making an interaction with Moshe impossible, and then shrinks to more manageable proportions, within the Tent, allowing Moshe to enter and talk with God.
The obvious question is this: In order to create the universe, in a reality in which all there is is God, there needs to be an act of tzimtzum – there would be no room for the created world otherwise, nowhere for it to be. In the Tabernacle, however, why does God need to do this? Could He not just enter the Mishkan, go to the area of the Ark, and leave it at that? Why first completely cover and fill the Tabernacle, making interaction impossible, only to then shrink His presence, thereby allowing and inviting Moshe in?
Many years ago, my wonderful teacher, Rabbi Jay Miller, of blessed memory, compared God’s original act of tzimtzum, which allowed there to be room for Him to create the world, to what parents must do to make space for their creations, their children. Here, too, in connection with the Mishkan, I would like to look at what is happening in the Mishkan as a model for what happens in a family, between parents and children and, by extension, in all human interactions.
God needs to enter the Tabernacle fully, filling it with His presence, even to the extent of excluding other (lesser) presences, precisely in order to make it clear that He is, in fact, present. To make it obvious that He is there. Once that happens, He can then make it possible for others to be there with Him. Had He not first “filled the Tent”, Moshe would be entering a place in which God’s presence was not so obvious, real, or palpable. God would not clearly be there. By first completely filling the Mishkan, God illustrated to one and all the fact that He really is actually, fully, there.
Once that has been taken care of, room can, and must, be made for the other half of the equation: His student, His beloved servant, Moshe. Moshe now has room to enter into an interaction with a God who he knows is truly and fully there, and is therefore ready to truly and fully interact.
Parents need to do this as well. We need to first fill the space in which we will interact with our children – the home - make it clear that are fully present, fully committed, fully ‘there’ – and then shrink ourselves, situate ourselves within the home and the lives we share with our children in a way that allows and invites them in, and enables a full engagement, a “meeting”.
Similarly, when engaged in any meaningful interaction, we must find a way to “fill the Tent of Meeting”, be fully present, and then make room for an exchange with others.
The lesson of God’s overwhelming presence and subsequent act of tzimtzum in the Tent of Meeting is the challenge we all face when trying to parent, or engage in any meaningful relationship or interaction: to bring our full selves, to be seen and felt to be fully present, while leaving room for those who need to be with us, who need to hear from and talk to us, to be fully present as well.
Rabbi Shimon Felix