The chapters we read this week are all about building the Tabernacle. Why were so many chapters devoted to what was, after all, a rather magnificent collapsible community center?
Even if we say that the Tabernacle was the temporary “House of God” before people would get a chance to build a permanent Temple, why did God need a house or a physical base, altogether? Isn’t God everywhere?
Any community needs to have a center, either in the form of a person or in the form of a location, and usually both. The tabernacle was the focal point, the meeting place, the law courts. It was the market square as well as the center for worship. But it was also the seat of leadership.
There can be strong, charismatic leadership. One might have thought that Moses was such a person, and yet we are constantly reminded of his inability to express himself. We see several times how frustrated he gets, how he needs Aaron and, more frequently, God. So the Tabernacle became the symbol that it was God who was the real leader, rather than Moses.
This is all the more significant because the commentators argue as to when the Tabernacle was built. Some say it was designed and ordered before the Golden Calf incident, because this is the sequence of events as written down in the Torah. Others see it as a response that came after. If it was built after, it could be seen as an antidote, as a concession to the people’s need to have a physical presence to symbolize God’s leadership. If it was built beforehand, then its significance becomes functional. It was designed primarily as the community center and only incidentally did God choose to signify His presence with the pillars of cloud and fire.