The Mishkan as Signifier

Linking representation & action.

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Along with swimsuits, mystery novels, and suntan lotion, most of us bring a camera on vacation. We use it to take pictures of the sights we see and the people we meet, and we show those pictures to our friends back home. Later, we use the pictures to reminisce, at some future date when we look back on the vacation fondly. We frame them and put them on our desk or our walls to remind us of life as it is "supposed to be," and to shape the future as we move through our day-to-day existence. We use the camera to remind us of those moments which do not stand, but vanish like all moments do, with the speed of an arrow.

The pictures, of course, are not what we remember so fondly. They are only little pieces of paper, or pixels on a screen, which signify what once was, or what we hope will be, but they are not themselves objects of love or veneration. That is why we often find our own pictures to be fascinating, but other people's pictures so boring--they are signifiers of experiences we don't share and aspirations we don't hold. 

A Moment in Time

The Israelites who traversed the desert generations ago stood at Mount Sinai for three days, with thunder and lightning, trembling mountains and Divine voices calling from the Heavens. They experienced a moment that changed them and the world forever, and then the moment was over. It flew by, and soon after, they built the portable Temple known as the Mishkan--or Tabernacle--which is described in great detail in Parashat Terumah. Like a photograph, the Mishkan was a signifier--a permanent representation of a fleeting revelation.

To some, the Mishkan was, like the photographs we take back from vacation, an incredible representation of what once was. There was deep intimacy between God and the people of Israel at Sinai, but the moment couldn't hold: it was over as soon as it had begun. The biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto says it is exactly this problem of impermanence which the Mishkan is meant to solve. "So long as they were encamped in the place [of Mt. Sinai], they were conscious of God's nearness; but once they set out on their journey, it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there was in their midst a tangible symbol of God's presence among them. It was the function of the Tabernacle to serve as such a symbol."

Inducing the Presence of God

Other thinkers agree that the Mishkan is a signifier, but not of the past; rather, of what might yet be, like a photograph on the desk that reminds us of the vacation we hope to take, or the lover with whom we hope to be reunited. In essence, this is how the Nahmanides, one of the giants of 13th-century Spanish Jewry, understands the Mishkan. He writes that it was appropriate that there would be a sanctuary where the Israelites could induce the presence of God to dwell among them. For the Nachmanides, the Mishkan was a place where the presence of God might yet dwell. It was a monument to something which had not yet happened, a reminder of the absence of the presence of God, so that the Israelites might yet long for it.

Of course, it is not only the Divine Glory which can be represented, either as a reminder of what was or an aspiration of what might yet be. Divine Justice, of the sort that biblical prophets such as Amos and Isaiah, and perhaps many of us, long for, can also be captured and represented.

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Rabbi Brent C. Spodek

Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek is the rabbi-in-residence and director of Jewish communal relations at American Jewish World Service. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2007 with rabbinical ordination and a master's degree in Jewish Philosophy and then served as the Marshal T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun. He can be reached at bspodek@ajws.org.