Tetzavveh: Meeting Room

February 2, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Posted in Tetzavveh | Leave a comment
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The term ohel mo-eid, “Tent of Meeting”, occurs 135 times in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; twice in Deuteronomy; and eleven more times in the Bible. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You shall command”), in which God continues to give instructions to Moses on constructing a sanctuary and ordaining priests to serve there. The portion begins:

And you, you shall command the children of Israel, so they shall take for you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, to make the lamp go up regularly. In the ohel mo-eid, outside the curtain that is over the eidut, Aaron and his sons shall prepare it …(Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21)

ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent

mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = appointed place for meeting with God; appointed time (usually for a religious festival)

ohel mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting (i.e. the tent appointed for meeting with God)

eidut (הָעֵדֻת) = reminder; God’s written testimony (i.e. the two stone tablets placed inside the ark)

The term ohel mo-eid refers to at least two different tents in the book of Exodus/Shemot. Before Moses and the Israelites construct the sanctuary, Moses’ own tent is the Tent of Meeting. Once the sanctuary is assembled, the term “Tent of Meeting” usually refers to the tent that contains the menorah, the bread table, the incense altar, and the Holy of Holies, a curtained enclosure for the ark. In the passage above, the menorah is to be placed inside the ohel mo-eid, in front of the curtain hiding the ark.

Only priests are supposed to enter the tent, the ohel mo-eid, when it is assembled. The unroofed courtyard in front of the ohel mo-eid will contain the altar for roasting or burning up various animal offerings. All the Israelites can enter the courtyard (or at least all the men; the Torah is silent about the women).

When Moses is told how to ordain Aaron and his sons as the first priests for the Israelites, God’s instructions emphasize the importance of rituals performed in front of the entrance of the ohel mo-eid. That is where the future priests will immerse themselves in water, and where they will press their hands against the head of the bull that Moses will slaughter to dedicate them to God.

Then you shall slaughter the bull in front of God at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid. (Exodus 29:11)

Being in front of the Tent of Meeting is equated with being in front of God—because the Tent of Meeting is the appointed place where God will meet with the high priests.

Later in the Torah portion, God’s instructions call for two lambs to be completely burned up into smoke at the altar every day, one in the morning and one at twilight;

It will be a regular rising-offering, for their generations, at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid, in front of God, where I will have an appointment with you, to speak to you there. And I will have an appointment there with the children of Israel, and it will be made holy through My glory. (Exodus 29:42-3)

Imagine having an appointed place to meet with God!

Before there is a Tent of Meeting, the men in the Torah never know where God might speak to them. God’s voice might come from a stranger who turns out to be not human after all, or in a dream, or through a burning bush. But in this week’s Torah portion, while Moses is spending 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, he learns that God has designated the Tent of Meeting as the place where God will speak to Moses and manifest to the Israelites. God adds:

I will make holy the ohel mo-eid and the altar, and I will make holy Aaron and his sons to be priests to Me. And I will dwell amidst the children of Israel and be their god. (Exodus 29:44-45)

Yet even after the ohel mo-eid is built later in the book of Exodus, and consecrated by a dazzling and deadly display of divine fire in the book of Leviticus, the Israelites in the Torah keep on alternating between accepting and rejecting their god.

When the people can see the sanctuary in the center of their camp, with the pillar of divine cloud and fire hanging over it, and remember God’s fire consecrating the Tent of Meeting, why would they continue to complain about God, flout God’s rules, and even worship another god?

Imagine that if you wanted to find God, you could just go to the executive meeting room in the headquarters of your ethnic group. God would hold private meetings there with those few who had appointments. But God would manifest a visible presence to anyone who came to the door—something that looked like fire or cloud, but was definitely unearthly.

Would you believe God was present in the executive meeting room? Would you live in awe of the god who came to the meeting room? Would you strive to follow its rules of behavior? Or would you inquire about the gods of other ethnic groups, and wonder whether there was a more ethereal and universal god?

The Israelites in the Torah never deny that there is a god who chooses to be their god and dwell in their Tent of Meeting. They only waver in their allegiance to this god. Maybe they are not always sure this particular god is the best god for them. After all, in the book of Exodus, the god of Israel does not claim to be the only god in the world, just the most powerful one. I can imagine an Israelite longing for another god, one that is less temperamental and destructive, more patient and forgiving.

The idea that there is only one God for the whole world is implied in the creation stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis, but then it disappears from the Torah. True monotheism creeps into the Hebrew bible gradually, beginning with the book of Deuteronomy.

Today no religion would claim that their god has an executive meeting room at the religion’s headquarters. Yet in Israel, people of different religions are still fighting for ownership over sacred places. And some religions still claim that God gives direct instructions to their own equivalent of the Israelite high priest. And there are all too many religious people who believe that the “real” God is their god.

Yet I know that some people keep their own religion’s channels of connection with God, without assigning God exclusively to their own religion’s executive meeting room. I hope that someday all people will let God out of their own Tent of Meeting.

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