Meeting the Divine upon “the entrance of the tent”: for a Theology of Indeterminacy

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

When Abraham undergoes ritual circumcision, he does so because of a Divine commandment – through the ritual he enters the covenant, and once he’s in he introduces every male in his household, circumcising the flesh of their foreskins (Gen. 17). Entering the covenant entails a rite of passage, from one status to another one – and that may be the character of the Hebrew nation (from the root ע.ב.ר): to present to humanity the “passage,” movement, the framing of change, the systematization of mutation. The circumcised Abraham is then presented in the parsha of Vayera as “sitting at the entrance of his tent,” where God appears to him, visually, in the form of three men:

Gen. 18:1-33 – “The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.’ They replied, ‘Do as you have said.’ Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes.’ Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he replied, ‘There, in the tent. ‘ Then one said, ‘I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!’ Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. […]When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.

The entrance into the covenant is followed by an encounter with God – and this intersection between the human and the Divine takes place in a specific place: the entrance of the tent. Abraham runs from the entrance to the three Divine agents – as he speaks to them, outside the tent, under the tree, Sarah is within the tent, or at least that is what Abraham thinks. Really, Sarah listens very carefully to the table-talk between her husband and these three individuals from “the entrance of the tent.” What takes please right after that is the well-known debate between God and Abraham on Sodom and Gomorra, a conversation in which the human agent discusses with the Divine the concept of justice, and at the end of which, once again, Abraham and God move: God departs and Abraham returns to his place.

It is truly confusing and frustrating to read this passage, especially when we approach the text with a mindset of faith in sacred loci: where, we may feel the urge to inquire, is God? Does Abraham enter the covenant, and thus becomes the first and ultimate ‘insider’ so to speak? Or is he sitting “at the entrance of the tent” on purpose? Is the ‘entrance’ the place where we encounter the Divine, a locus of transition between the inside and the outside? And also: why is Sarah not within the tent, as Abraham says she is, but is rather at the entrance when she listens to the conversation between he husband and God?

I wish to shed light on this concept of the threshold as the transitional locus of encounter with God using another passage from the Torah, this time taken from the book of Exodus, parashat Ki Tissa:

(Ex. 33:5-23) “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelite people, ‘You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now, then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do to you.’ So the Israelites remained stripped of the finery from Mount Horeb on. Now Moses would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp. It was called the Tent of Meeting, and whoever sought the LORD would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he had entered the Tent. And when Moses entered the Tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the Tent, while He spoke with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud poised at the entrance of the Tent, all the people would rise and bow low, each at the entrance of his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another. And he would then return to the camp; but his attendant, Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent. […] He [Moses] said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” And the LORD said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Following the sin of the golden calf, which represents the urge of man to reify God when faced with the present / absent Divine entity, God moves away from the intimacy of Mt Horeb and redefines the encounter with him as a potentially destructive event. ” If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you.” Moses thus takes the “Tent,” locus of encounter with God, and pitches it “outside the camp,” redefining the locus of intersection between the human and the Divine as a function of distance, detachment, movement: whoever seeks the Lord needs to leave the intimacy of the camp and walk to the Tent of Meeting. And while Moses is the only one to enter the Tent of Meeting, the people of Israel are allowed to gaze and endeavor to relate to the encounter with God from the familial and domestic locus of their tent – “each at the entrance of his tent. The personal, domestic sphere, after the Golden Calf, is turned into a broken image of the intimacy between Moses and God in The Tent – and instead of the immediacy of Horeb, all that the sinful “stiffnecked” people have is a visual contemplation of a scene from afar. And while at the entrance of Moses’ tent there is a “pillar of cloud” of Divine presence, at the same entrance of each and every tent in the camp there are the single individuals gazing in wonder, rising and bowing low in respect of something they no longer can experience with an erotic immediacy.

God’s inherent presence in nature can no longer be experienced – what we, as a people, must accept is the painful distancing of the Divine from our “camp” and to humbly accept yearning, gazing and wondering as the means we have to relate to what is now a dispersed Absolute. And God’s presence may be perceived in “passing by,” in the movement from within to without, from intimacy to alienation, within a fleeting, ungraspable and transient moment in which we can only perceive God’s back, and not his face. The Divine can thus be found in the indeterminate locus of the “entrance” – between two loci, and never only in one.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.