Why does God need a dinner table?
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Donations), God orders a Moses to make a table, and tells him how to set it. The table is just one piece of furniture God requests during Moses’s first 40-day stay at the top of Mount Sinai. God also wants the children of Israel to make a lamp, an incense burner, and an ark, and a tent to put them in.
They shall make a mikdash for me, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
mikdash (מִקְדָּשׁ) = sanctuary, holy-place
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = sanctuary, dwelling-place
God calls for the sanctuary to be divided into three zones of holiness. All Israelite men can enter the outer courtyard, which will be unroofed but enclosed by curtains. This is where animal sacrifices will be burned at the altar. Inside this courtyard Moses will erect a tent divided into two rooms. The first room, called the Holy, is reserved for the priests. The innermost room, screened off by a curtain, is the Holy of Holies, a small enclosure for the ark (see my post “Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day”). Only Moses, and the high priest once a year, can enter the Holy of Holies.
But priests will be walking into the room of intermediate holiness every day. God requests three pieces of furniture for this room: a gold incense altar, a gold lampstand or menorah (see my post “Terumah: Waking Up”), and a small gold-plated table.
You shall make a table of acacia wood, its length a pair of cubits, its width a cubit, and its height a cubit and a half. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, and you shall make a molding of gold for it, all around. (Exodus/Shemot 25:23-28)
The flames of the lamps and the smoke of the incense are intangible, so they make natural reminders of intangibles such as enlightenment, the soul, God. But the table does not produce anything intangible. After giving more specifications for the design of the table, God orders Moses to lay out a place setting and some bread—as if God were going to sit down and eat.
And you shall make its bowls and its scoops and its jars and its chalices for pouring out [libations]; of pure gold you shall make them. And you shall place upon the table bread of panim, lefanai continually. (Exodus 25:30)
panim (פָּנִים) = faces, face, expression of feelings, surface, front, presence
lefanai (לְפָנַי) = facing me, in front of me, before my presence
Although some translations still call this bread “shewbread”, following the King James Bible, a more accurate translation would be “Bread of Faces”. We learn in the next book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus, that twelve loaves of bread are stacked on this table at all times, replaced once a week on Shabbat with newly baked loaves.
The Israelites knew that other religious cults in the region set food in front of an idol so that the essence of the god inhabiting the idol could eat the essence of the food in front of it. But the Torah clearly states that when the old loaves are removed once a week in the God of Israel’s sanctuary, the priests eat them (Leviticus 24:9). So why does God need a dinner table?
I believe the point of the table appears in the sentence I would translate as “And you shall place upon the table Bread of Faces, facing Me continually”. In the Torah, bread represents all food, which is a gift from God. Yet since humans need to actively intervene to change grain into bread, I think bread can also symbolize the creative effort humanity puts into the material world. Twelve loaves of bread represent everyone in the twelve tribes of Israel. Symbolically, the Israelites are faces of bread, facing God continually.
No wonder God orders a table set with bread. It is not enough to approach God through the mysterious dazzlement of flames and smoke, the overwhelming feeling of mystical experience. We must also approach God through our everyday, solid, material lives, setting ourselves out on the table and facing God continually.
This is a difficult goal to achieve. How can we face a god we cannot see?
In ancient times the mishkan, and later the temples, provided holy rooms to serve as God’s “dwelling place”, and the place for human priests to enact rituals to orient the people toward God. Today, we build sanctuaries where everyone can come and pray and enact rituals in order to orient themselves toward the divine.
The ritual space, with its furniture, helps. Nevertheless, I am sometimes so distracted during a service in a sanctuary that I forget to try to face God. It is even harder to keep trying to face God during the week, as I deal with all the material things in my life. It is a tall order, but a good one, when the Torah says:
You shall place upon the table bread of faces, facing Me continually.