Several years ago, I walked into our Jerusalem apartment and said: “Julia, I believe in God.” And Julia, my wife, looked at me sideways, shook her head, and said: “Okay.” Then she went back to her laptop. During the week following this revelation, the colors changed: the greens were more verdant and the fuchsia flowers were brighter. In the moment of encountering God, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches: “some of us blush.” For me, in that week, all of creation blushed. And then it was gone. The colors returned to what they had always been.
Heschel teaches that God seeks us out constantly, consistently, and we long to remediate our existential loneliness. So why the disconnect? Why when I long to see the colors I saw for that week, can I not access them always?
Because despite my longing for connection with Something Bigger Than Me, I don’t see God when I don’t want to be seen.
Whenever we see God, when we have those moments of encounter, not only do we see God, but God sees us, and we can’t tolerate it. We can’t tolerate being seen because it’s too overwhelming, too naked to be so thoroughly known, all of our shame and flaws exposed. Despite our longing for connection, we hide because we’re afraid to blush.
So God creates the Mishkan, a specific place where God “will meet with you” (Exodus 25:22). There, God speaks from “above the curtain, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant.” God meets us where we can be met, where we can tolerate being seen: inside a tent, behind a curtain. It’s an act of Divine compassion that even Moses doesn’t understand.
When God commands Moses and the Israelites to build the Mishkan, Moses responds according to midrash: “God! The heavens cannot contain you!” But God replies: “Moses, you have it wrong…. I will compress Myself inside these walls and dwell within them” (Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 10). In other words, God knows that most of us cannot tolerate being known and seen at all times. God knows that human survival depends on wearing what Heschel calls “our mental makeup.” So a Divine gift: a place safe enough to be exposed, open, seen, where God speaks from behind the curtain, from between the cherubim that decorate it.
Instead of constant encounter, God creates moments – moments of exposure, moments for blushing – if we are willing to be seen: like the opportunity to share your story at a meeting, or to be honest in a Spiritual Counseling session with Rabbi Mark. For those moments, we can as Heschel teaches “suffer to be seen, to commune, to receive a ray and to reflect it.”
We create the Mishkan, places for encountering God, with our willingness to be exposed. There we can blush from behind the curtain. There, we witness God’s strip tease. God gives us this gift because God is, in Heschel’s words, “unwilling to be alone” – nor to let us be.