This week’s portion is one of the most profound we can have, an almighty, eternal and utterly ‘other’ G-d, of pure Spirit and normally invisible, comes, visibly and tangibly to fill the completed Mishkan. The G-d who created everything material, yet who is Himself not material, dwells, exists in time and space in the heart of this construction. We get used to this idea and think it’s fine ‘G-d can do that’, yet in play here we have issues of transcendence and immanence the we simply can’t ignore. Maimonides tells us that G-d has no form, and drawn from his own inherited Aristotelian ideas this may make sense (to him), yet passages like this from the Torah undermine his conclusions. Modern Judaism (following in the patterns set down in earlier times, but not reaching back as far as the first century) may not like the idea of any anthropomorphic descriptions of the One true G-d, of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, but Torah says the opposite. The pillar of cloud and fire are external, physical forms taken by G-d to demonstrate His actual normally invisible presence with us, right at the very heart of our faith system and worship structure. If G-d is not at the heart of Judaism, however He chooses to reveal Himself and in whatever form He chooses, then our faith walk as Jews will always only ever be tangential to our real calling and purpose.
But from this encounter with the divine presence made physically manifest, taking a form that was visible and real, we also learn another very important concept: Israel’s calling nationally and individually was not to be a people with ‘lofty or high ideals’, nor even a nation of sophistication or cultured nuance, nor a people of ‘higher consciousness’. No, our calling was simply this: we should demonstrate the living G-d of Israel’s presence amongst us as alive and all powerful. We Jews don’t have a philosophy to follow, no ‘self-help’ manual to propagate (Judaism is not about life-style choices..), our function is to show the awesome of G-d of Israel’s presence. As we are reminded, it is the Greeks (gentiles) who seek wisdom and knowledge, we Jews seek a sign…
And the ‘sign’ is that we carry the presence of G-d with us as a nation, a people called and chosen by the One true G-d. As G-d took residence in the completed Mishkan, with the Mercy Seat as His footstool, the presence of G-d was so strong that Moshe and the priests were not even able to perform the services. They, yes even they who were clean, holy and had a walk with G-d we might only dream of, even they couldn’t stand in His awesome presence! We read here that it was the glory, or kavod in Hebrew, of G-d that filled the Mishkan. The kavod of someone is their inner quality made externally manifest, it is their glory, and the inner beauty and qualities of G-d are made manifest before us here. The visible presence of G-d in His glory that filled the place was, as the word also suggests, a heaviness and weight that brought people, here Moshe and the priests (just as later in the Temple when the Shechinah presence filled it too) to a standstill. They were almost unable to function before the strength of G-d’s presence, the power of His awesome quality and glory. As sinful human beings that we are, this should not surprise us.
But despite the later tendencies of more modern forms of (non-Messianic) Judaism to hide the fact, the point remains that one of, if not THE key point of us as Israel, the nation, is to demonstrate the living presence of G-d. We should expect to see it, feel it and know it. If it was expected by Moshe in his day, then we should expect it in ours today too.