"That I Might Dwell In Their Midst"
Summarized by Matan Glidai
Translated by Kaeren Fish
That they may know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell in their midst; I am the Lord their God. (Shemot 29:46)
Commenting on the expression, "that I might dwell," Rashi writes: "[I brought them out of Egypt] on condition that I dwell in their midst." According to this explanation, the verse is teaching us that the Exodus from Egypt was conditional upon Am Yisrael building the Mishkan, thereby causing the Divine Presence to rest in their midst.
Ramban rejects Rashi's interpretation for linguistic reasons: the introductory "lamed" in the expression "le-shokhni" ("that I might dwell") is not used in this sense anywhere else. Instead, Ramban proposes that the meaning is the same as "be-shokhni" ("when I dwell); i.e., Benei Yisrael will know that God redeemed them from Egypt in the wake of the revelation of the Divine Presence that will occur in the Mishkan: "They will know when I dwell in their midst that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt."
The simple meaning of the verse would seem to find its most accurate reflection in the interpretation of Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, both of whom maintain that the verse is teaching that the Exodus from Egypt took place in order that the Holy One, blessed be He, would dwell in the Mishkan. Ibn Ezra comments:
For I took them out of Egypt solely in order that they would make Me a Mishkan and I would dwell in their midst; this is the meaning of the words, "You shall worship God upon this mountain."
Ramban quotes Ibn Ezra and adds that this is a "great secret." The secret is that the dwelling of the Divine Presence is actually a Divine need – God, as it were, "needs" His Presence to be brought down into the world by means of the Mishkan, and it is for this reason that he brings Benei Yisrael out of Egypt. Despite the fact that the Mishkan is obviously needed – both materially and spiritually - by Am Yisrael, nevertheless it is also something that God "needs," so to speak.
Clearly, it is very difficult to understand the idea of the Mishkan serving any "need" of God. God has no "needs" that require satisfaction. But Ramban brings proofs for this idea from explicit verses in Tanakh, such as, for example, "Israel, in whom I take pride" (Yishayahu 49:3), and "He has desired it for His habitation" (Tehillim 132:13).
Chazal expand on this idea and speak of God's "desire" with regard to all of creation: "He desired to dwell with His creations in the lower world" (Bamidbar Rabba 13:6). Clearly, Chazal permit themselves to express such an idea only because there are verses that specifically make reference to it.
If we combine the above teaching of Chazal with the verse from the parasha, we arrive at the full picture. God desires to live in the world generally, but He wants to dwell in one place more than in all others: among Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael, in the Temple. The verse explains that owing to this desire on God's part, there was a need to redeem Benei Yisrael from Egypt, for God could not dwell in their midst so long as they were still enslaved and mired in the 49th level of impurity.
Clearly, this goal of the Exodus is added to the natural and simple goal of saving Am Yisrael from suffering. The Torah notes both goals in relation to the Exodus. On the one hand, the salvation from suffering is mentioned: "I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and their cry… I shall descend to save them from the hand of Egypt" (Shemot 3:7-8). On the other hand, we find the goal of having a place for the Divine Presence to dwell on earth: "that I brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God" (Bamidbar 15:41). There is the idea of "I took you out from under the suffering of Egypt" (Shemot 6:6), but at the same time there is the idea that "I take you as My nation, and I shall be your God."
Another matter that is connected to the idea of God’s Presence dwelling amongst Israel as a "Divine need" is the concept of the "Divine Presence in exile." This idea, too, is connected to the exile and redemption from Egypt, as God tells Yaakov: "I shall go down with you to Egypt, and I shall surely also bring you up" (Bereishit 46:4).
There are two aspects to this idea. On the one hand, "I am with him in distress" (Tehillim 91:15) – the Divine Presence is exiled of its own will together with Am Yisrael, so as to share in their suffering. As the Gemara teaches (Megilla 29a):
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai taught: See how beloved Israel are to God; to every place where they were exiled, the Divine Presence accompanied them. They were exiled to Egypt; the Divine Presence went with them… they were exiled to Babylon; the Divine Presence went with them….
On the other hand, the Divine Presence is "forced" into exile, as it were, when Am Yisrael is exiled. Because the Divine Presence is bound up with Am Yisrael, it is "automatically" exiled together with the nation. This is not an exile of choice, but one that is "forced upon" God. The Exodus from Egypt, then, also contains an aspect of redemption of the Divine Presence from its exile.
This idea is relevant for us, too. We are not yet engaged in building a physical Sanctuary, but we must build a spiritual Sanctuary: a sanctuary of values, of Torah and the commandments, in order that God will dwell in our midst. We must remember that we need such a sanctuary – so as to sanctify and elevate ourselves, but it is "needed" also by God, Who dwells with us. This combination of human and Divine “needs” can be a powerful motivating factor, as well as idea that elevates our daily lives and our Torah living.
(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Tetzaveh, 5755 .)