R. Samuel b. Ammi said: From the beginning of the world’s creation the Holy One, blessed be He, longed to enter into partnership with human beings… When did the Holy One, blessed be He, compensate them [those below for not partnering with them at that time] there? At the erection of the Tabernacle, as it says, “And he that presented his offering the first day” (Num. 7:12), meaning, the first of the world’s creation, for God said, “It is as though on that day I created My world.”
-Genesis Rabbah 3.9
Rabbi Carl Kinbar’s notes for his teaching “For God’s Dwelling Place” presented at the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin begin this way. It’s really a two-part lesson that Rabbi Kinbar managed to offer to us in a single session on Shabbat (I’ll write it as a “two-parter” presenting the second part tomorrow).
You may be put off by the Talmudic references and I’ve been avoiding them until now, knowing how Christian audiences sometimes react to the teachings of the Rabbinic sages. On the other hand, it is sometimes helpful to access Jewish commentary on the Word of God and the Spirit of God in order to re-insert what we are learning back into it’s “natural Jewish habitat” (as D.T. Lancaster puts it).
But what does the act of creating the world and building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert have to do with “gifts of the spirit?”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
–Exodus 24:15-18 (NRSV)
Rabbi Kinbar told a story about how this verse was once taught in a class. One woman in the class responded that it must have been incredibly boring for Moses to sit up on that mountain for forty days and forty nights with nothing to do.
When I heard him describe this woman’s comment I immediately thought, “Sure, if he were alone!” Rabbi Kinbar kindly suggested to his class, “Let’s assume that God is exactly as the Bible describes Him.” Apparently, it doesn’t occur to some folks to take the Bible at face value and to believe God is as He is described in the pages of His own Word.
But let’s “assume” that He is and that at Eden, He desired to dwell among people. In Exodus, He desires to dwell among His people.
I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory; I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.
But it’s more than just God living in the human world. God wants something special from people, something that He doesn’t want from any other portion of creation. He wants to be partners with us. He want us to work with Him, not just for Him. He wants more than servants, He wants sons and daughters to help in building His dwelling place; building the Kingdom of God.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
We tend to think of the “Kingdom” as either Heaven or the future Messianic era, but Jesus is talking about it in the present tense: “…the kingdom of God is among you.” When he says it’s near, he doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right around the corner or that it’s coming soon, he means that as we pursue our partnership with God and perform the mitzvot necessary to help repair our broken world, we are drawing nearer to the Kingdom, we are building little bits and pieces of the Kingdom every time we perform an act of kindness, charity, or justice.
I don’t mean that God just wants to “dwell” with us in some abstract or metaphoric sense.
Moses did everything just as the Lord had commanded him. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was set up. Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars; and he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent over it; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
As far as I know, there’s nothing in the Hebrew text that suggests Moses had help when he built the Mishkan for the first time and Midrash states that Moses built the entire structure single-handedly. Moses “partnered” with God in constructing God’s dwelling place. All of the Children of Israel who either directly participated in making the elements of the Mishkan or who donated funds and materials for the work “partnered” with God in constructing God’s dwelling place among them.
And when the Divine Presence descended upon the Mishkan so that even Moses was unable to enter the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:34-38), it was possible for the first time to make offerings to God directly in His presence and God dwelt among His people Israel. In fact, it was not possible to make sacrifices to God unless the Divine Presence was in the Mishkan. And this, according to the Sages, was God’s compensation for the lack of human participation in the creation of the world; allowing human participation in the construction of God’s Mishkan and God dwelling directly within Israel and her legions.
In the Garden, God comes down to human beings. At Sinai, when God gives the Torah, God comes down to human beings. And when the last element of the Tabernacle was constructed, God comes down to human beings.
And God came down to human beings in the form of a human being, not in the totality of all that God is (for the Divine Presence is not the totality of all that God is, for even the earth is His footstool, see Isaiah 66:1, Acts 7:49) but God came down to us and dwelt among us as living, breathing flesh.
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
Most Christians have a difficult time understanding what the Temple means to the Jewish people. Most Christians don’t understand what the big deal is about Jews praying at the Kotel (Western Wall, Wailing Wall). Most Christians don’t get the importance of Exodus 40 because they (we) believe that now that we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God lives in us more than ever, and who needs the Temple anyway?
The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I mentioned in a previous blog post about the conference, that the Holy Spirit has always been moving among humanity and particularly among Israel. The Spirit didn’t show up for the first time in Acts 2. If we can say there’s any sort of difference between the time of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the Apostolic Era, it was that the Spirit did not previously dwell upon literally every man and woman in Israel, but after the first Shavuot post-ascension, the Spirit does dwell upon each person who has come to faith in God.
Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them — they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent — and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!” Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel.
–Numbers 11:26-30 (JPS Tanakh)
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!” Wow.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.
Wish granted, Moses.
And it will be God’s House and He will dwell among humanity again.
It’s not an either-or proposition. We can have both. We can build both in partnership with God. But we in the church must never forget that our “connectedness” to God is wholly dependent on Israel’s “connectedness” to God. We are made partners through Israel’s partnership with God.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns when I restore their fortunes:
“The Lord bless you, O abode of righteousness, O holy hill!”
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me forever.
–Jeremiah 31:23, 34-36
This set of verses is meaningful in at least two ways. It teaches us that we are not “there” yet. It was quite obvious to me as I was sitting in a conference listening to a Rabbi teach me about God’s partnership with humanity that I still needed to be taught about God. Teachers were still saying “Know the Lord.” We are still in the process of building. God’s finger is still in the process of writing His Word on our hearts, of turning our hearts from stone to warm and beating flesh.
The other thing it teaches is that Israel will not cease to be a nation before God as long as there is a Sun by day and a Moon by night, as long as the waves of the sea continue to come to the shore. Only when this “fixed order” stops will the offspring of Israel stop being a nation before God.
Israel by design and the people of the nations who are called by the Lord’s Name by being grafted in have a job to do. We must continue to build God’s dwelling place among us. How do we do that? By obeying the will of God for our lives, by loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. By feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving. By studying His Word, by living the life that God has provided for us in accordance with His wishes. By loving and by humility.
The generation of Israelites in the desert weren’t circumcised. The consequence of not obeying the commandment of the brit milah is to be cut off from among the people. This is a serious consequence. Why didn’t God cut off that entire generation that came out of Egypt?
According to Rabbi Kinbar, it was because of God’s love and humility. We don’t often think of God as being humble, but we do know that even Moses was considered the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Maybe Moses, as a “disciple” of God, was imitating his Master.
I want to mention two more items before I end my “meditation” for this morning. Remember the woman Rabbi Kinbar told us about, the one who thought spending forty days and forty nights on the mountain with God would be boring? Another woman responded to her after Rabbi Kinbar suggested we could accept what the Bible tells us about God at face value. The second woman said she heard from God. It was just after her husband died and she was feeling intensely grief-stricken. The woman didn’t say what God told her, but the implication was that His presence was very comforting and very real…and not boring at all.
The last thing I want to say is that Rabbi Kinbar suggested something I hadn’t considered before. Is the Birkat Kohenim (the Priestly Blessing) a blessing for the Messianic Era?
May the LORD bless you and guard you – יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you – יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace – יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
I’ll pick up Rabbi Kinbar’s lesson in Part 2 tomorrow.