“And Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah, did all that Hashem had commanded Moshe.” (38:23)
Rashi notes that it might have been more accurate to describe Betzalel having done “all that Moshe commanded him.” That the Torah describes him doing “everything that Hashem commanded Moshe,” implies that even regarding things which were not told to him by Moshe, Betzalel himself figured out what Hashem wanted and did so. Case in point: Moshe told Betzalel to make the vessels and furnishings first, and afterwards construct the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Betzalel said to him: “Doesn’t one first build the house, and only then bring vessels and furnishings into it? Into what are these vessels to be brought?” Moshe said to him: “Indeed, that is how I heard it from Hashem, Blessed is He!”
The Tur (Orach Chaim 684) quotes the Pesikta that we read the chapters of the inaugural offerings of the Nesi’im (tribal leaders – see Bamidbar/Numbers 7:1-8:4) on Chanukah, because the construction of the Mishkan was completed on the 25th day of Kislev; the first day of Chanukah. The Taz (note 1) notes that although the components of the Mishkan were indeed completed then, the Mishkan wasn’t actually assembled until months later, on the first day of Nissan (Shemos/Exodus 40:18).
This well known concept seems to bring into question the afformentioned discussion between Moshe and Betzalel. Even if the components of the Mishkan – its walls, coverings, sockets, etc. – were created before its vessels and furnishings, ultimately everything was completed by the 25th of Kislev, and from then on sat around waiting until the first day of Nissan when the order was finally given to erect the Tabernacle. If so, when the vessels were completed, there was still no building in which to place them!
The Chasam Sofer in his responsa to Orach Chaim (188) offers a brilliant answer to this question, quoting his Rebbe, R’ Noson Adler zt”l. He says that the components of the Mishkan – both its vessels and its building materials – had no inherent kedusha (sanctity). It was only after they were anointed with the shemen ha-mishchoh (anointing oil) that they became holy. And it was only once they acquired their kedusha that Betzalel’s concern for where they would be placed became important. The components of the Mishkan, he says, were anointed in the same order that they were made; items constructed earlier were anointed first. At this point, if the vessels had been constructed first, they would have to be the first to be anointed and acquire their kedusha – and would have nowhere to be put! Realizing this, Betzalel insisted on building the components of the building first, so that the vessels and furnishings would be able to find their place in a completed Mishkan.
Perhaps we can offer another explanation: The building of the Tabernacle is the less glamorous yet more essential of its components. It is called Mishkan because Hashem’s Presence rested (shachan) there. Its vessels and furnishings represent, if you will, its ornaments. They were, of course, essential to the daily service; without them the service could not be performed. Still, symbolically the vessels and furnishings are the frills and ornaments of the Tabernacle, while its coverings, beams and sockets are its foundation.
When building a house, one first lays out the architectural plans. After deciding how many bedrooms, hallways, and bathrooms the house will have, he then go about the time consuming task of choosing tiles, wallpapers, light-fixtures and door-handles. If someone were to go about selecting all the frills and ornaments of the house before even having decided how the house would be built, we would call him impractical if not foolish. “What are you going to do with all those ornaments if you don’t even have a house yet?!”
Even if they were to tell us: “Don’t worry – I’ve arranged with the stores to keep the blinds and the couches and the tsatchkes on hold until I get around to building the house,” we’d tell them they’re missing the point. The ornaments are there to serve the house and beautify it; first you’ve got to put some time into where you’re going to live. Only then is it appropriate to start thinking about the embellishments and the nick- knacks. Sure, you can make it work the other way, but it shows you’ve got your priorities all mixed up. You’re focused on the trivial and not on the essential.
Often, we find ourselves doing just that. Things we know are truly important we push off and leave over, while we spend our time and efforts sweating the details. We get so caught up in the inconsequential that there’s no time and energy left for what really counts.
Sometimes, by the time the invitations and the seating plans and the menus and the buses and hotels and plane tickets have all been looked after, there’s no time left to just sit back and think about what it means to marry off a child. Take Pesach preparations: After whitewashing the walls and taking apart the pots and pans and cleaning out the garage and making sure we’ve got several varieties of Pesach’dig cakes, the seder night is spent yawning our way through the Hagadah (at least here in the Diaspora we’ve got a second chance!). We lose sight of the palace for its pitchefkes.
Perhaps this is why Betzalel was so insistent on building the Mishkan proper before taking care of its vessels and ornaments. “Where am I going to be putting these vessels?! The question is not a practical one – surely we could find somewhere to store the vessels in the meantime. Rather what he’s asking is: Aren’t we giving the wrong message here. Shouldn’t we be thinking about Hashem’s dwelling place first?
It’s about the veneer vs. the wood beneath; about the consequential vs. the trivial; substance vs. transience. By giving chronological precedence to the building of the Mishkan, Betzalel is demonstrating where man’s primary and initial efforts should lie. Once we’ve built a solid foundation, the task of beautifying and enhancing takes on far greater meaning.
Have a good Shabbos.
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