Looking into various Midrashim, we find different meanings of the meeting between the Divine presence and the human being.
In Parashat Truma we begin to read the commandments surrounding the building of the Mishkan. The Sages were very concerned with the seemingly paradoxical task of building a sanctuary that can possibly contain the infinity of God, and offered a variety of explanations to the conceptual difficulty of the command to build the Mishkan. Through the Midrash we will attempt to better understand the different meanings that can shed light on the relationship between the human religious act and its desired address – the Devine infinity that is God.
Rabbi Yehuda Bar Simon stated in the name of Rabbi Yohanan. “This is one of three things that Moshe heard from the mouth of the Lord and was taken aback… when he said to him ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary’ (Exodus 25:8) Moshe said to God ‘behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee’ (1 Kings 8:27) and it is also written ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ (Jeremiah 23:24) and it is also written ‘Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1) is it possible for us to make him a sanctuary? Said the Lord to Moshe, I do not request it according to my strength, but according to their ability, as it is written ‘ And you make the tabernacle with ten curtains’ (Exodus 26:1) , once Israel heard this they stood and willfully volunteered and made the tabernacle and once they made the tabernacle it was filled with his glory. [Tanhuma Naso 18]
The Midrash places the question in the mouth of Moshe – “is it possible for us to make him a sanctuary?” according to the Midrash, God’s reaction confirms the infinite gap between divinity and humanity and does not even pretend to try to bridge it. Moshe is not mistaken, the divine truly cannot be contained in human constructs, and the reality of the Mishkan is only ‘according to their strength’. From the divine perspective the Mishkan has no actual significance. It is only the human perspective that grasps the limited Mishkan as the place of Gods Shechina – his presence, and it is this perspective only that the commandment relates to. The Midrash describes the willingness of Israel to volunteer, in light of God’s response. This teaches us the great sense of freedom a person experiences when he realizes that his performance of religious acts is not an attempt to capture the infinity of God in human constructs. It is just a “taste” of it on our level, a taste that creates a strong will to participate in this type of relationship with his creator.
The end of the Midrash can be read as the opposing side of the same relationship. God is well aware that he cannot reside within human constructs, but in response to the human “voluntary” gesture, he answers with his own gesture, “giving up” his infinity so that he can fill the Mishkan with his glory, in accordance with Israel’s ability to build the Mishkan.
In contrast to the humanistic position of the previous Midrash, Rabbi Meir in Bereshit Rabbah offers a different approach:
A Samaritan asked Rabbi Meir… he said to him” is it really possible that he concerning whom it is written ”do I not fill the heaven and the earth “(Jeremiah 23:24) should have talked with Moshe from between the two horns of the ark?”
He said to him bring me a convex mirror, which makes things look large. He handed him a convex mirror. He said to him look at your reflection. He saw that it was larger. Now bring me a concave mirror, which makes things look small. He handed him a concave mirror. He said to him look at your reflection. He saw that it was smaller. He said to him if you, a mere mortal, can change your appearance however you will, he who spoke and brought the world into being – how much the more so! One must therefore say that, when he wills, is it not the case that ‘do I not fill the heaven and the earth?’ but when he wills, he may speak to Moshe from between the horns of the ark.
Rabbi Anya Bar Sussai said there are moments in which the world and all that is in it cannot hold his glory, and there are moments when he speaks with a human being from among the hairs of his head, as is said in the following verse: ‘Then the lord answered Job from the storm’ (Job 38:1) [the word for storm – seara, can be read ‘the hair’, meaning that he spoke with him] from among the hairs of his head.
Rabbi Meir’s method of dealing with the difficulty is by placing a mirror in front of the Samaritan. This placing of the mirror accentuates the gap that exists in a persons life between the essence of “who I am” and the question of “what I look like”. The Samaritan knows (and sees, of course), that the way he is perceived outwardly doesn’t necessarily reflect who and what he is. In this manner Rabbi Meir resolves the difficulty of the divine revelation in the Mishkan. God can reveal himself in the Mishkan to whatever extent that he wishes, he chooses the manner in which he will be revealed in the world, and bewilderment at this presence is equal to denial of the ability imbedded in the world, to represent one same object in many different ways. The religious world, according to Rabbi Meir, is only one such manner of representing God. It is not the “actuality” or “reality” of God himself. This is not a case of our human mind’s perception, ‘according to their ability’, but rather focusing our attention on the reflection of infinity in the mirror of this world.
In the second part of the Midrash, Rabbi Anya takes a step back, and undermines the question itself. The meaning of the infinity of God simultaneously contains within itself the ability to be finite and infinite. The Samaritan question is asked from the viewpoint of the finite human tools of perception. It is similar to the famous riddle, “can god create a boulder that he cannot lift?” Rabbi Anya’s answer is far-reaching – with regard to infinity such a question is meaningless. The greatness of God is such that he can decide to be infinite and furthermore - he can decide to be finite, even revealing himself from the hairs of Jobs head.
According to Rabbi Anya, raising the question of the significance of the religious world and its relation to God himself is in itself a result of our own narrow perception of the world our limited idea of God. If we can free ourselves from these limitations, then our encounter with the word of God (whether from within the storm or from between our hairs, there is no difference…) will be as extensive as possible, as it was in the Mishkan.
Another Midrash, the Psikta can be explained in a similar manner.
When God said ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary’ (Exodus 25:8) Moshe said before the Lord heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee, and you say let them make Me a sanctuary? Said God to Moshe, Moshe not what you had in mind, rather twenty planks in the north and twenty planks in the south and eight planks in the west and I shall come down and limit my [Shechina] presence amongst you there. As it is written ‘And there I will meet with thee’ [Exodus 25:22]
God answers Moshe simply- “not what you had in mind”. I have news for you. God’s actions are not confined to human restrictions, according to which the Mishkan is a reduction of the Shechina. On the contrary, I will come down and restrict my presence down there, in the Mishkan, amongst you.
And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. [Exodus 25:8] why was this said, has it not already been written ‘do I not fill the heaven and the earth’ (Jeremiah 23:24) then what is to be learned from the words ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary’- in order to receive reward for the making.
The Mechilta’s answer takes us back to the human perception of the act of Mitzvot, God’s commandments, but in a different way to the first position of “according to their strength”. The statement “in order to receive reward”, points to the fact that in respect to infinity human religious acts are insignificant. The only significance they can possibly have is in the reward they entail. The realm of reward is tied to Olam Haba – the next world. Speaking in these terms is speaking of a different, future world, disconnected from this one, in a way beyond our comprehension. In a sense, it is possible to say that it is specifically the lack of significance of the Mishkan that makes it a fitting means of receiving reward. The stripping of the religious act from its human meaning and placing it in the realm of promised reward, is actually the only possible way to be worthy of reward.
This Midrash continues with the story of Shabbat in Yavne, a story that allows us to read the reward and the significance of the religious act in a slightly different way:
The students had been staying during Shabbat in Yavne and Rabbi Yehoshua was not there and when they cam to him he said: What did you do in Yavne? They said to him: Rabbi, after you. He said to them: And who spent Shabbat with you in Yavne? And they said Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariya. He said to them: Is it possible that R Elazar Ben Azariya spent Shabbat with you and nothing new was said? And they said: Rabbi, this he expounded to us: ‘You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God… your little ones, your wives’ [Deuteronomy 29:9-19] and can the little ones differentiate between right and wrong? Rather this was to give reward to those who brought them…
The meaning of the bringing of the children to the making of the covenant with God goes far beyond the simple understanding of “reward to those who brought them”. The parent who brings along his child to such an event is rewarded educationally. Even if the young children cannot tell right from wrong, the actual gathering together, the faith, fear and power that accompany this event are engraved in their hearts and a permanent impression remains on his inner religious world.
This perhaps might explain the meaning of the reward given to the builders of the Mishkan. The reward is not only in the world to come, but it is also in the educational field, in the influence of the existence of a temple in this world, a temple that even if it is devoid of significance with regard to the actual divine presence, it still has an amazing affect on the education of children and the moral life of both child and adult, in itself is the reward given to its builders.