At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, we read about Moshe setting up the mishkan, the place where the Shekhinah would dwell — in English, the “tabernacle.” He sets up the tent, erects screens to delineate different spaces, lights lamps and makes offerings. We learn that he and Aaron and Aaron’s sons would wash their hands and feet upon entering and upon approaching the altar, a physical act intended to cultivate spiritual purity of intention. And we read that a cloud of God’s presence covered the tent, and filled the tent so fully that no one could enter. When the cloud lifted, the people would journey; when the cloud descended, they would camp.
This taste of Torah teaches us some things about sacred space. Sacred space requires careful preparation. Sacred space requires attentiveness to detail. Moshe sets up the screens in part to protect the people from the spiritual power of God’s presence; sacred space needs to be safe. Sacred space makes demands of us: that we keep the light of memory burning. That we cleanse our hands of wrongful actions, and our feet of the dust from unjust or unkind paths. This is how we set the stage for an encounter with God.
Of course, this encounter doesn’t only happen in synagogues. The labor and delivery room where our son was born felt, to me, so suffused with God’s Presence that there was barely space for people in the room. When I have been blessed to sit at the bedside of someone who is dying, I have felt God’s Presence hovering over the bed like a mother bird. Maybe you have felt that Presence at those times too — or while walking in the woods, while breathing in the charged air just before a storm, while immersing in the endless motion of the sea.
When the cloud of glory lifted, the people would travel. We can’t live in exquisite awareness of God’s presence all the time. No matter how powerful the experience — whether it’s prayer or yoga, childbirth or seeing the aurora borealis — we have to return to mochin d’katnut, small consciousness. That’s how we’re able to venture forth, to do our work in the world. And when the Presence descends again, we enter mochin d’gadlut, expansive consciousness — and we are transfixed for a time by the experience of being in the Presence of Mystery.
If Mystery can be experienced in these solitary and personal ways, why go to the trouble of building the mishkan? Because the mishkan is the spiritual technology given to our ancestors for cultivating that experience. In coming together to build a beautiful place where God’s presence could dwell, they cultivated community, and they cultivated spiritual life. A mystical experience might happen in the wilderness, or at a moment of great emotional import — but it can’t be predicted. The mishkan was our way of domesticating the peak experience. Bringing it home. Building a home for it.
In order for a spiritual practice to be sustaining, in order for connection with God to be there when we need it, some maintenance is required. If I wanted to be able to hike Mount Greylock, I’d have to exercise regularly enough that when the mountain is before me, I’d have the endurance to climb. If we want to be able to ascend to the spiritual heights of connection with God, we have to exercise our spiritual muscles regularly enough that when the opportunity for connection is before us, we have the strength and the tools we need to make that trip.
Once our ancestors practiced daily connection with God through fire: burning incense, burning sacrifices, sending a pleasing odor to God. Today we practice that connection through prayer: saying, in Anne Lamott’s words, “help” and “thanks” and “wow” until they become second nature. Today the mishkan that we tend is a Mishkan T’filah, as it were; a tabernacle of prayer. It’s the community where we practice our help and thanks and wow. It’s the altar of our own ardent hearts.
Image of the cloud of glory over the mishkan: found via google image search. Artist unknown. If you can identify the artist, please do and I’ll add attribution!