The Torah in Parashat Teruma tells of God’s command to Benei Yisrael to construct the Mishkan which served as the site of sacrificial worship until the construction of the Beit Ha-mikdash in Jerusalem in the times of King Shlomo. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 34:1) tells of Moshe’s astonishment upon hearing this command:
At the time when the Almighty said to Moshe, “Make for Me a Mishkan,” Moshe was startled, and said, “The Almighty’s glory filled the upper and lower worlds – and He is telling me, ‘Make for Me a Mishkan’?” The Almighty said, “The way you think is not the way I think. Rather, twenty planks to the north and twenty to the south…I will [then] descend and constrict My presence within one square ama.”
For the human mind, the notion of a Mishkan, a place where God “resides” here on earth, is incomprehensible. God is infinite, and cannot be confined to any particular space. And so the command, “They shall me for me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them” (25:8) is baffling. But God insists that we comply with His instructions despite our inability to understand, guaranteeing that He will, indeed, “reside” in the Mikdash which we construct.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz (Da’at Chokhma U-mussar, vol. 2, 55) applied the message of this Midrash to the famous tradition that the promise of “ve-shakhanti be-tokham” (“I shall reside among them”) means that God will reside within each and every person. (Rav Moshe Alshikh famously explained that God speaks of residing “be-tokham” – “in their midst,” and not inside the Sanctuary, because His intention is to reside within each individual.) Just as Moshe was startled by the notion that God would dwell within a finite, physical structure, similarly, many of us understandably doubt that God could possibly “dwell,” in any sense of the word, within our beings. If we examine ourselves with perfect honesty and objectivity, we will recognize our faults and deficiencies, and feel wholly unworthy of God’s presence in our lives. And so we might ask, as Moshe did, “He is telling me, ‘Make for Me a Mishkan’?” Can our beings ever really be a suitable place for the Divine Presence? Can we ever be truly worthy of building and maintaining a close relationship with God?
The Almighty’s response to Moshe – “twenty planks to the north and twenty to the south” – is the response to this question, as well. For reasons we can never know, God wants to reside within us flawed, imperfect beings. As frail and blemished as we are, God wants us to obey His commands to the best of our very limited ability, and in this way, He will accompany us throughout our lives. He wants a relationship with us in our current condition, as imperfect as it may be, provided that we work to build the “Mishkan” within us in accordance with His commands. Even when we feel lowly and undeserving of His presence, we must have the confidence of knowing that God seeks to “reside” within us at all times, as long as we do what we can to build the “Sanctuary” which He has commanded us to build.