Gold and silver and copper for vessels. Blue and purple and crimson yarn for weaving curtains. Fine linen and goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins for the tent walls. Acacia wood for the altar tables. Oil for lighting. Spices for anointing. Aromatic incense for ceremonies. Precious gems for the priestly vestments.
These are among the precious possessions that the Israelites are summoned to bring to the artisans who are constructing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, at the start of this week’s Torah portion. Somehow, a rag-tag group of escaped slaves has access to such things in such great quantity, and is eager to give them so willingly, that Moses actually has to tell them to stop giving – because it’s more than God needs.
The truth of the matter is, of course, that Israel’s God needs none of this. But the people believe God does – and right now, in this Neverland between the Egypt they have left and the land they have been promised as their own – right now, that’s what matters.
The land is full of Temples and altars to the pantheons of Gods that were were worshipped across the Ancient Near East. The gods always got the best of what the people had – from the precious metals and gems to adorn the temples, to the animals sacrificed on the altars, to the skills of the artisans and weavers and goldsmiths. This is what the ancient peoples believed: If we care for our gods and their needs, then they will care for us and ours.
But as we are overwhelmed by the details and the minutiae, it’s all too easy to forget that this temple, this altar, is unlike any other. For God has commanded that these wanderers in need of love and protection create a portable tabernacle that will go with them: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham: Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
Let’s just stop and think for a moment about what an extraordinary statement that is.
In the ancient world, everybody else believed in a vast pantheon of gods, each of whom had a specific role and a specific realm. A god of the sun and a god of the moon. A god of the mountains and a god of the sea. A god of rain and a god of the harvest. Each one had to be worshiped and fed and obeyed, in his or her own temple. The people went to them.
But Israel’s God is like no other – one God of creation, revelation and redemption. One God overseeing the workings of the whole material world. And instead of insisting that these wanderers come to God, God is saying – wherever you go, I will be with you, and this Tabernacle will be My home. V’shachanti b’tocham.
The three-letter root for the Hebrew word “to dwell” is shin-khaf-nun. In these same Biblical passages, it is at the root of the word Mishkan – the tabernacle itself.
And from this same root, the rabbis create the Divine persona of Shechina, the indwelling, close presence of God. The nurturing feminine aspects of a God previously portrayed as celestial, accessible only to Moses on Mount Sinai, and masculine, capable of destroying whole armies with a wave of His hand.
The Shekhina, for the rabbis, is that facet of God that the Israelites need in times of distress, loneliness, and fear. Not just in the wilderness, but anywhere we go – by choice or by force. By invitation or by exile. And not just thirty-five hundred years ago, but even now.
As the great Rabbi Akiva taught: “Shekol makom she-galu, shechina imahem, Wherever Israel goes into exile, Shechina is with them.”
What an astonishing notion! A God that is willing to go into the wilderness, into exile, into danger – to protect an entire nation, in every generation. Never before had the world seen such a thing! But that’s not the end of the story.
During my month away, I’ve been – among other things – studying the Zohar, the foundational text of medieval Jewish mysticism, with the brilliant scholar Daniel Matt, who spent eighteen years of his life creating a modern, annotated English translation of this esoteric and complicated piece of literature. Created in 13th-century Spain and written by Moshe de Leon in pseudo-ancient Aramaic, the Zohar plumbs the depths of the words of Torah seeking the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe – and opening the gates of heaven themselves.
The gate-keeper to the celestial heights – to those facets of God so far from us and so incomprehensible – is Shechina. She is, Dr. Matt told us, actually the star of the Zohar. But here, she is not a mere facet of God’s nature. She actually represents a concept of Deity that Judaism sorely lacks: the feminine half of God.
Keep in mind that peoples of the ancient world had, at the head of their pantheons, a male god and a female god reigning together. Isis and Osiris in Egypt, for example, or An and Ki in Mesopotamia.
But as the Israelite religion evolved, the feminine, the goddess, disappeared. The God of Torah is described in masculine terms, in masculine language. The Rabbis turned the Mishkan – the place of God among us – into Shechina, the nurturing element of God among us. But the Kabbalists gave Shechina her own realm, her own powers. She is the bride sitting as an equal with her bridegroom, the masculine element of God they called Tiferet, or what we would call yud-hey-vav-hay, Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, Adonai, or Lord.
So what does it mean to bring the feminine back into our notion of God? The union of the male and female makes God complete. And we here on earth are responsible for making that happen. The rabbis taught that the way we behave on earth has consequences for the world. The kabbalists taught that what we say and do has consequences for God, who created our world. We speak of Tikkun Olam as repair of the world – usually through tzedakah and g’milut chasadim, giving and doing in God’s name. But tikkun, for the mystics, is – as Dr. Matt taught – about something very specific. It’s about weaving together the elements of God that make God whole. And making God whole is the way we make our lives and our world whole.
Now, that is a far greater responsibility. But it starts, Dr. Matt says, with the basic responsibility of studying Torah. It is Torah’s words, after all, that created the world. It is Torah’s words that hold the secrets to at least some elements of God’s nature. It is Torah’s words that bring us closer to our own unity with God – and ultimately to the unity of God.
Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we humans have been exiled from one-ness. As Dr. Matt taught, there is something beautiful and also something terrible about the splits, the tears in the weaving, that the exile created. On the one hand, we understand – as Adam and Eve did in that moment that brought them shame — that we are unique creatures, separate entities from one another. And that individuality is what gives us the spark of creativity that we need to make the world better.
On the other hand, being separate can be very, very lonely. We all know that. We all feel a sense of abandonment – some of us more deeply than others, and some of us in different situations than others. But that’s why, ever since then, we humans have searched for, and worked for, ways of coming back together. Of creating Tikkun.
Our goal, then, is – in essence – achieving oneness. Oneness with the divine. Oneness within the divine. Oneness by creating healing within ourselves. Oneness by creating healing between us and other people.
Repairing the cosmos is too big a job for any one of us even to comprehend. But starting by repairing ourselves, and our relationships to other people, is a life-altering start.
In coming weeks, we will see the change in the world around us – new life sprouting from the old, green from brown, dynamic colors emerging overnight. It’s like the earth is healing itself naturally, regularly, just as God intended.
And so it should be with each of us: finding in the new life around us the inspiration to find new life and inspiration and love within us and in the people around us, with the support and guidance of the Shechina, who is always with us.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Exodus 25:8.