God’s revelation at Sinai – the greatest spiritual event in history – happened without any dedicated space or object. The Torah seems to emphasize this when the Jews were reminded that God spoke to them from the Heavens (20:19). This, as opposed to the Miskhan that the Jews were instructed to build in this week’s parsha.
Bekhor Shor points out that once the tablets were to be given, they would need a fitting domicile. Following this line of thinking, the divine aura that the tablets would bring down to Earth would automatically create the beginnings of a spiritual center, aka the Mishkan. While one might wonder why there was a need to give physical tablets to begin with, the Jewish people – like any other people – were likely to need a physical manifestation of their connection with God.
But neither was that written in stone (pardon the pun)! We recently wrote that some commentators understood that the stand at Mount Sinai did not have to be a one-time experience. Accordingly, had the Jews not asked that Moshe listen to God on their behalf, the Jews might have heard the entire Torah directly from God. And it is likely that this would have made a difference in terms of their need for both the tablets and the tabernacle.
The rabbis understood that the tabernacle did not represent an ideal. The problem is not just associating God with something physical. Perhaps even more problematic is that a tabernacle creates an outside the tabernacle. For once there is a holy realm within, there is automatically a less holy realm without. And on some level, that is a distortion. Not that God can’t concentrate His presence to be more in one place than another – in the same way that the mystical tradition teaches about tzimtzum, the spiritual retraction that was necessary to create the world. The point is that even where God is “less present,” He is still more present than anything we actually perceive.
At Sinai, there was no outside, and no distortion. And Moshe continued to live without the distortion created by the Mishkan, even after it was built. He was on the level where he could be just as aware of God outside as inside. And according to the commentators we mentioned above, the Jews at Sinai were given an offer to step up to this level as well. Had they done so, they would have risen to the level of R. Chanina ben Dosa, who knew that God’s will could determine that vinegar will light just as easily as oil. The key phrase he would use was “ein od milvado – there is nothing else but Him.”
For most of us, sacred spaces help us to focus, whereas we would otherwise not focus at all. Hence they are worth the opportunity cost they create. But we are well advised to keep that cost in mind. The fact that we are able to focus on God in the synagogue does not mean we should forget God outside!