In the last few Torah portions, we’ve had the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and dozens of laws to help the Israelites set up a just and functioning society. Moses has gone back up the mountain to get the hard copy (sorry, both for the pun and for my repetition of it over the years) of the Ten Commandments, leaving the people to…well, he’ll find out later.
This week and next, we read very detailed instructions for building and furnishing the Tabernacle (mishkan) and for the priests’ vestments. Then we have the (spoiler alert) Golden Calf disaster, followed by the actual fabrication of the Tabernacle and vestments. Three questions occupy the commentators about all this: Are these sections in chronological order? Why have a Tabernacle at all? Why the often mind-numbing detail?
Some commentators, like Rashi, feel that building the Tabernacle is a means of atoning for the Golden Calf, so that story is actually first chronologically. Further, according to Maimonides, the Golden Calf incident demonstrates the need for the people to have something tangible to connect them to an intangible God, so the Tabernacle would be a concession to this weakness. However, others, like Nachmanides, take the chronology as is and reject the notion of the Tabernacle-as-crutch. The amount of detail in the instructions, the space given to them, and the importance of the Tabernacle’s eventual descendant, the Temple in Jerusalem, all support Nachmanides, in my opinion. The degree of detail has the practical benefit of preventing arguments when the people are actually carry out the instructions and enables the reader to experience the Tabernacle and vestments vicariously, even to the extent of replicating them today (you can buy kits online). I also like to think of the four portions of instructions and execution as peaceful, soothing buffers around the awful story of the Golden Calf.
So. Why a Tabernacle? I’ve written here before that the building of the Ttabernacle has parallels with Creation. Buber drew seven such parallels with Creation (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, vol. 2, pp. 480-1). Thus, by building the Tabernacle, the Israelites that will, in a small way, imitate the Lord’s own project of Creation.
I feel the key points in this portion are found right at the beginning, in verses 25:2 and 8:
“2. Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.”
The gifts, though very specifically described (a mishkan registry?), are to be voluntary. The only compulsory donations are a half-shekel of silver for the sockets for the Tabernacle’s planks and the annual half-shekel donation for communal offerings. We’ll also read of the emotional involvement of the people during the actual building. The degree of detail evokes the excitement of people who are into building dream houses and interior design and has the practical benefit of preventing arguments when the people are actually carry out the instructions.
“8. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
Yes, the people have been told that the Lord is not constrained physically. But this verse resonates with warmth. It defines the Tabernacle as a special, sacred space where contact between the people and the Lord is especially loving and intimate. As Rabbi Edward Feinstein wrote this week about 25:8 (“When You Haven’t Got a Prayer”), “We are to build a place for God to dwell in our world, in our lives. Not on high. But down here in the rhythms of daily experience God wishes to dwell.”
The new church
A rich man goes to his minister and says, “I want you and your wife to take a three-month trip to the Holy Land at my expense. When you come back, I’ll have a surprise for you.”
The minister accepts the offer, and he and his wife set off to the Middle East.
Three months later they return home. They are met by the wealthy parishioner, who shows them a new church he has had built for them while they were gone.
“It’s the finest building money can buy, reverend,” the man says. “I spared no expense.”
And he is right. It is a magnificent edifice, outside and in. But there is one striking difference. There is only one pew, and it is at the very back.
“A church with only one pew?” asks the minister.
“You just wait until Sunday,” the rich man says.
When the time comes for the Sunday service, the early arrivals enter the church, file onto the one pew and sit down. When the pew is full, a switch clicks silently, a circuit closes, the gears mesh, a belt moves and, automatically, the rear pew begins to move forward.
When it reaches the front of the church, it comes to a stop. At the same time, another empty pew comes up from below at the back and more people sit down. And so it continues, pews filling and moving forward until finally the church is full from front to back.
“Wonderful!” says the minister. “Marvelous!”
The service begins, and the minister starts to preach his sermon. He launches into his text and, when 12 o’clock comes, he is still going strong, with no end in sight. Suddenly a bell rings, and a trap door in the floor behind the pulpit drops open.
“Wonderful!” says the congregation. “Marvelous!”