Light from the Sidra

Terumah (‘Offering’)

Torah: Exodus 25:1–27:19. Haftarah: 1 Kings 5:26(12)–6:13*

Seeing the face of God

In June 1994, after the death of Menachem Mendel Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I attended a meeting in London at which Rabbi Immanuel Shochet was the speaker. Rabbi Shochet was one of thousands of shluchim, or emissaries, the Rebbe had sent out to bring Jewish people closer to Judaism. Rabbi Shochet was asked about making synagogue services more attractive and relevant and less boring in order to attract young people. He answered that no one is at liberty to choose the way to worship God. We can approach the Almighty only in the way he has chosen. There is no room for innovation in worship.

Whatever differences separate me and Rabbi Shochet –and there are many – I’m with him on this one. I couldn’t agree with him more. The instructions for the worship of God and the pattern for the mishkan in Ex. 25:1 – 31:18 were given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God himself. Moses was told, ‘According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall ye make it’ (25:9) and, ‘See that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount’ (25:40).

Every piece of furniture and every utensil in the mishkan was to be made exactly according to what God showed Moses on Sinai. There was to be no innovation. In Lev. 10, when Aaron’s sons approached God in a way he had not prescribed, they were killed.

One of the most interesting pieces of furniture in the mishkan was the ‘table of showbread,’ the description of which is found in 25:23-30. It, too, had to made according to the pattern shown to Moses and was to be used in the prescribed way. Why was there a table for bread in the mishkan?

In Ex. 24:9-11, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel ate a fellowship meal in the presence of God on Mount Sinai. From the biblical narrative it is not clear if the food they ate was from the sacrifices that had been offered at base camp or whether it was supernaturally created but, either way, the meal was provided by God. King David rejoiced in Ps. 23:5 that YHWH his shepherd prepared a table for him in the very presence of his enemies. The table provided protection. In Bible times, to be invited to a meal in someone’s home was a great honour. The highest courtesy was shown to the guests, who could be secure in the knowledge that their host would not soon become their enemy. To harm a guest orfor a guest to betray a host was a heinous crime so, on Mount Sinai, God’s seventy-four honoured guests ate and drank in the knowledge that their heavenly host would not raise his hand against them.

After the fellowship meal, Aaron, his sons and the seventy elders returned to the Israelite camp while Moses ascended the mountain to be shown the pattern for the mishkan. Ex. 25 consists of instructions for constructing three of the main pieces of furniture for the tabernacle: the Ark of the Covenant, the menorah and the table of ‘showbread’. Moses was instructed also to make pure gold dishes, pans, pitchers and bowls for pouring, which indicates that both bread and wine were present on the table.

According to Lev. 24:5-9, every Shabbat, twelve matzot were set on the table with pure frankincense on each row, ‘that it may be to the bread for a memorial-part, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD.’ There were two kinds of offerings in the tabernacle – bloody and unbloody – and the showbread was ‘most holy … from the [unbloody] offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute’ (Lev. 25:9). It is highly likely, therefore, that the ‘showbread’ and the wine served as memorials of the fellowship meal on Mount Sinai in chapter 24, when Moses and those with him saw God.

Many Bible versions refer to the ‘showbread’ as ‘the bread of the Presence’ but a literal reading of Lechem ha Panim is ‘Bread of the Face.’ If the ‘Bread of the Face’ and the wine on the table in the tabernacle were memorials of the fellowship meal on Sinai, the ‘Bread of the Face’ commemorated the astonishing fact that they saw God, whose face no one can see and live (Ex. 33:20).

Three times every year, says Ex. 23:17, all Israel’s males were to appear before God. The literal meaning of the Hebrew text is that at the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, the men of Israel went to Jerusalem ‘to see the face of God’! In Ps. 42:2, the Psalmist cries, ‘My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God [literally: ‘before God’s face’]?

What does appearing ‘before God’s face’ and ‘seeing the face of God’ mean? How can we see God when no one can see his face and live? There is a clue in the Talmud. In a discussion relating to the purity of the menorah and the table of showbread and whether those pieces of holy furniture can become unclean, Menachot 29a says that at the festivals the priests ‘used to lift it [the table of showbread] up and exhibit the Shewbread on it to those who came up for the festivals, saying to them, behold, God’s love for you’ (emphasis added).

No one except a priest was allowed to enter the holy place and view the sacred objects, so removing an item from the sanctuary was an astonishing breach of temple etiquette. Why did the priests break temple protocol in such an apparently blatant manner by removing the holy table?

It might help if we remember that, according to Ex. 23:17, the Israelite pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem ‘to see the face of God’. The matzah was the ‘bread of the Face’ and in the Hebrew Scriptures, the greatest expression of the love of God is the shining of his face. Ps. 67 begins with a prayer for God to make his face shine on Israel, while three times in Ps. 80 the poet repeats this plea to God.

Perhaps the table was brought out at the time the high priest pronounced the benediction of Num. 6:24-26: ‘The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’

Paradoxically, although no one can see God and live, a number of people in the Hebrew Scriptures did see him and lived to tell the tale. The patriarch Jacob ‘saw God face to face’ and his life was ‘preserved’. Gideon saw God in the form of the Angel of YHWH, as did Samson’s parents. In the pages of the Hebrew Bible, God evidently did show himself to certain individuals who, to their own astonishment, didn’t die.

The greatest blessing anyone can experience is to see God and to enjoy the shining of his face. Is that possible today? The Good News according to Yohanan in the New Covenant scriptures says

Followers of Messiah come to the Table of God to eat and drink in his presence, knowing that because they are his guests his hand will not be raised against them (Ex. 24:11). Indeed, they are favoured with a fellowship more intimate than that enjoyed by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel. Looking up, they saw God through a sapphire-blue heavenly expanse, whereas those who eat the New Covenant banquet are taken higher, like Yohanan the emissary of Jesus, who witnessed the same realities from the vantage point of heaven itself in the book of Revelation (4:6).

The bread the followers of Jesus eat at the Table of Messiah is not only the ‘Bread of the Face’ but also the ‘Body of Messiah,’ in whom they behold the love of their God. ‘We have an altar,’ says Hebrews 13:10, ‘from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.’ When he was put to death, Messiah became the most holy offering, and the memorial meal he instituted at the final Passover he ate with his disciples became a perpetual statute for his people.

Just as no one can stare at the sun without being blinded, so no man can see God’s face and live. But another emissary of Messiah, Paul, wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:6, that ‘the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness… has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah.’ At Messiah’s table, with its bread and wine, his followers safely behold the love of God in the memorial of the Lamb of God who died to take away their sin.

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