A statement of Reish Lakish … God told Israel; if you accept the Torah, all well and good. But if you do not, I will revert the world to chaos (“Tohu VaVohu” – see Bereshit 1:2)” (Shabbat 68a)
This Talmudic Midrash proposes a fundamental principle. It would seem that the very existence of the world is dependent upon Israel’s acceptance of Torah. The world before its creation is described as Tohu Vavohu. If the Torah is not accepted by Am Yisrael, God is simply going to re-boot the system, wiping out the entire history of the universe. Why? Putting it another way, we will say that the world is created for a reason. The aim of creation is that it be infused with spirituality, with Godliness. And the Torah embodies that Godliness. God says; If Israel will not accept the Torah, then we might as well end the entire enterprise that we call planet earth. Why? Because Israel are being given the opportunity to inject the spirit into the material world. If they refuse, then the entire plan collapses.
Here is the beginning of the answer about the Mishkan-creation link. The act of bringing spirituality into the world, is in itself, an act of creation, for, in essence, the act of spiritualising the world, is part and parcel of giving the world its “higher” purpose. When Israel accept Torah, they bring the creation a step forward.
Likewise, when the Mishkan is built; the Mishkan is an enterprise whereby human beings establish a place for God on earth. With all the philosophical inconsistencies contained in this concept,  we are talking about an entity which gives God a foothold (so to speak!) – “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.”(Shemot 25:7). This act of bringing God into the world is the ultimate expression of our “completion” of the creation. It is creative act in that the presence of God is now intensified and may some day dominates our world . Simply put, the establishment of the Mishkan, continues the process of creation 2000 years earlier. The work of infusing the world with the spirit, is its creation. The physical work of creation has been done, but God expects man to do the rest of the work – the spiritual element.
It is interesting how the ideas escalate here.
Shabbat is the spiritual culmination of creation; a TIME for God after the physical creation. The Mishkan is a PLACE for God and spirituality within the physical world. It to is created from mineral, vegetable and animal elements and it houses the presence of God. The chidush is that our act of erecting the Mishkan, is the continuation of creation. In fact, it is the perfection of creation.
THE CONCEPT OF TZIMTZUM.
In one of his Parsha shiurim, Rabbi Ari Kahn (of Aish Hatorah and Bar Ilan University) relates this idea to the concepts of Kabbalistic theory. He talks about the concept of Tzimtzum – the contraction of God’s presence. I present his ideas here in his own words:
“Why would God need an earthly “home”? This question was posed in the Midrash.
‘When the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses “Make for Me a
Mikdash” [Exodus 25:8] Moses said in front of the Holy One blessed
be, “Master of the Universe, the heavens and beyond cannot contain
You, and You say “Make for Me a Mikdash!” The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, “Moses, not as you think I think, rather twenty boards to the north, and twenty boards to the south, and eight to the west, and I will descend and mitzamtzem (contract) My Shechina (Divine presence) among you below.”‘ [Pesikta D’rav Kahana Parsha 2:10, also see Shmot Rabbah 34:1]
The need is evidently not God’s but man’s. For God to allow His presence to dwell in this sanctuary, some type of contraction, as it were, is necessary on God’s part. This same question may be posed about Shabbat. Does God need a “day of rest” or does man? In one sense, the idea of Shabbat seems simple — God worked creating the world for six days, and rested on the seventh. But upon critical analysis it seems absurd — as absurd as God having a “home.”
Let us reconsider the idea of Creation. There was nothing, and then God created heaven and earth. This creation process continued for six days; at its completion God “rested.”
This description contains a number of deeply embedded anthropomorphisms: God’s “rest” as well as God’s “creation.”
While our idea of work (melacha) is to effect change in existing material, this is the perspective of a finite being utilizing creativity within a finite scheme. God, however, is infinite. The very notion of creation includes time, space and matter, all concepts, which God transcends. His creation is described as yesh me’ayin, “something (matter) from nothing.”
At times Kabbalistic writings offer an alternative understanding of creation as yesh m’ein — ein referring to the Ein Sof, the “Infinite.” That is, something finite emerging from the infinite.
Consider the problem mathematically: any value added to infinity necessarily yields a sum, which is infinite. When God who is infinite creates a finite value — i.e. the world — the sum total of reality should remain infinite. How can something finite be added to infinite?
The Kabbalistic response to this question is a term known as tzimtzum, “contraction.” Creation is not the result of God adding something finite; rather, it is the result of God holding back infinity, as it were.
We may now see creation, and therefore Shabbat, from a different perspective. On the first day, God holds back infinity; likewise on the second through sixth days. Finally, at the end of the sixth day, the world is complete and God rests. In other words, God reverts back to a non-contraction mode, back to infinity.
Shabbat is therefore the day that represents infinity, the one day, which relates to and reflects God on His terms, not via the tzimtzum. “
God, prior to the existence of the world, filled everything. God was everything! Where is there “room” for the non-Godly in this view of things? God needs to pull himself back. To create a space which is “not God”. This contraction is Tzimtzum. God makes space for the world to exist.
But on Shabbat, God re-enters the world. Why? Because on Shabbat, humans stop being creative. On Shabbat, we stop acting as creators and we surrender our rights to utilise the raw materials in the world to further our civilisations. We surrender our rights of creativity to God, the Ultimate Creator. In that way, on Shabbat, we invite God back into the world. In Kabbalat Shabbat, we do not only welcome Shabbat, we welcome God’s overwhelming intensity, to flood into a world, which he has “made room ” for by his own self-contraction.
HAR SINAI AND THE MISHKAN
How does all this relate to the Mishkan? On a basic level, I would say that, in the same way in which Shabbat invites God to rejoin our world, the Mishkan also invites God to join man. It makes “space” for God’s intense presence upon earth.
This can be illustrated by a striking analogy, which can be found at the close of our Parsha.
At the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai, God entered the world. Rashi describes the process in a similar manner to the way in which we have described God’s presence within the Mishkan:
“GOD DESCENDED UPON MT. SI: Is it possible that God physically descended upon the mountain? Does it not state ‘I spoke to you from the heavens.’ (20:19)? But, this teaches us that God softened and maneuvered the contours of the upper and lower heavens so that they rested upon Har Sinai like a quilt rests upon a bed. Then, God’s throne descended over them.” (Rashi on Shemot 19:20)
Rashi’s problem is technical. How can God speak from heaven and at the same time be considered to have rested his presence upon the Mountain? Rashi finds a solution. The mountain itself became the meeting point of heaven and earth.
When Moses wishes to ascend the mountain to receive the Luchot, the Torah states:
“And Moses ascended the mountain … and GOD’S PRESENCE rested upon Mt. Sinai, and the CLOUD enveloped it for six days, AND HE CALLED TO MOSES on the seventh day from the cloud … and Moses entered the cloud and ascended the mountain” (24:15-18)
These pesukim are mirrored in the closing verses of our Parsha:
“The CLOUD covered the tent of meeting, and GOD’S PRESENCE filled the Mishkan. And Moses could not enter the tent of meeting for the cloud rested upon it, and the presence of God filled the Mishkan… AND GOD CALLED TO HIM..” (40:34-5 and Vayikra 1:1)
With this parallel, we see God’s presence at Sinai and his presence at the Mishkan described in most remarkable parity. It would seem that God’s presence within the Mishkan is the same intensity of presence that appeared on Mount Sinai at Matan Torah.
What is the meaning of this comparison?
A PERPETUAL MT. SINAI
There is one major difference between God’s presence on Sinai and his presence at the Mishkan. Matan Torah is a “one time only” event. Once in history, there was a revelation. However the Mishkan is an everyday event. God’s presence is manifest in the Mishkan at all times. Nachmanides, however, takes up this idea in his introduction to Parshat Teruma.
“The essence (sod) of the Mishkan is thus: The Divine presence that rested upon Mt. Sinai, will now rest in the Mishkan in a more discreet form… the presence of God that appeared at Mt. Sinai was with Israel for eternity in the form of the Mishkan and when Moses entered (the Mishkan) he received the selfsame Divine voice (or word) that had spoken to him at Mt. Sinai ” (commentary to 25:1)
Nachmanides proceeds to demonstrate a series of parallels between the Mishkan and the revelation experience at Mt. Sinai.
At Sinai: “The CLOUD covered the mountain, and GOD’S PRESENCE rested upon Mt. Sinai” (24:16).
The Mishkan: “The CLOUD covered the tent of meeting, and GOD’S PRESENCE filled the Mishkan.”
At Sinai: “From the heavens he let you HEAR his VOICE” (Devarim 4:36)
The Mishkan: “And he HEARD the VOICE … from between the Keruvim” (Bamidbar 7:89)
We have already mentioned other parallels. The central idea here is quite incredible. On Mt. Sinai God “descended” to earth. He rested his holy presence amongst man. The Mishkan, likewise, is God’s instruction to us, whereby we can bring God down to earth so that He lives amongst us.
Now our strands fit together. Just like Shabbat is a process of bringing God back into the world, the Mishkan brings God back into the world.
But in essence, this is the ultimate act of creation. God, who made a world in which he is absent looks to man to call upon the name of God. In the Mishkan, we perfect the creation by bringing God back into the world.