This week’s Parsha details the construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle). Next week’s Parsha details the essential clothing of the Kohanim (priests) and the Kohain Gadol (High Priest). In two weeks we will read the Torah’s account of the Golden Calf and the following two weeks we will repeat all the details of the construction of the Mishkan and the making of the Bigdei (clothing) Kehunah. For all intents and purposes, the second half of Sefer Shemos is devoted to two topics, the building of the Mishkan with its attendant Kohanim and the sin of the Golden Calf. By contrast and example, the laws of Shabbos merit only a few references in the Torah with relatively few details and the laws of Shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals) even less than that (as is the case with most of the Mitzvos).
Why is the Torah’s account of the Mishkan so detailed, and repeated whereas other equally if not more important laws receive far less attention? Why did G-d want us to extract the 39 prohibitive laws of Shabbos (the Avos Melacha) from an analysis of what it took to create the Mishkan? Basically, we are told that on Shabbos we are forbidden to do the kinds of work that were necessary to build the Mishkan. What is the relationship between the not building of the Mishkan and Shabbos?
The Parsha begins with G-d commanding Moshe to gather donations from the Bnai Yisroel in order to construct the Mishkan, “So that I can dwell in their midst.” The purpose of the Mishkan was to create a single place where G-d’s presence would be most evident. Realizing the difficulties in suggesting that G-d’s infinite being is more in one place than another, the Mishkan was nevertheless the place that G-d’s presence was to be most revealed and therefore most easily perceived. As such, we are given permission to speak of the Mishkan (and the Bais Hamikdash – Temple) as the place where G-d’s presence is more present than anywhere else.
(Note: The concept of Kedusha (sanctity) is different than the concept of Shechina (G-d’s Presence). Shechina is our perception of G-d’s being in one place more than somewhere else. For example: the presence of G-d being more in places of Tefilah (prayer) and Torah study, G-d being more present in Eretz Yisroel than any other country, G-d being more present in Yerushalayim, the Temple Mount, the Bais Hamikdash, and the Holy of Holies, than anywhere else.
The concept of Kedusha is sanctity associated with purpose and restrictions – the more exclusive the purpose, the greater the restrictions and the greater the Kedusha. Very often the concept of Shechina and the concept of Kedusha coincide with each other because G-d’s presence is often accompanied with greater expectations for our service and behavior; however, keep in mind that the place of the Bais Hamikdash still retains its levels of Kedusha even though the Shechina has “departed.”)
Chazal tell us that the Mishkan was G-d’s response to the sin of the Golden Calf. Because the Bnai Yisroel sinned with the Golden Calf, therefore G-d commanded them to build a Mishkan. Had the Jews not sinned, had they patiently waited for Moshe to return with the Luchos (Tablets) and not made the Golden Calf, there would not have been a reason to establish a “place wherein I can dwell.” G-d’s Shechina would have been self-evident in the midst of the land, the nation, the community, the family, and the individual. G-d’s presence would have been manifest and felt in the manner of their interaction with each other and their environment. The confidence in their ability to be a holy nation would have allowed the Jews to maintain the necessary behavior to always be in G- d’s presence. However, once they had sinned, G-d’s relationship with them changed. Instead of G-d’s presence being manifest within the being of the nation and people G-d confined Himself to within the walls of the Mishkan.
In this regard, G-d’s response to the sin of the Golden Calf was similar to His response to the sin of Adam and Chava. Before Adam and Chava had sinned G-d’s presence was evident in the physical perfection and beauty of their human forms. They were different from all of G-d’s other creatures because they had been endowed with the ability to willfully recognize and serve G-d. As such, their G-dliness graced their naked selves with a presence that was discernable. Their physicality was endowed with a divine purpose and design that transcended mere appearances and aesthetics. Mostly, it was Adam and Chava’s behavior and bearing that proclaimed G-d’s presence and their devotion to Him. However, once they sinned with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil Adam and Chava were forced to cover their nakedness. G-d no longer trusted them to reveal His presence through their mere physical perfection; instead, their bodies would have to be covered and revealing G-d’s presence would depend solely on their behavior and acquiescence to His Mitzvos. Note: Despite being expelled from Paradise, humanities mission remained the same. They still had to proclaim G-d’s reality through the manner of their existence; however, now it would be more difficult for them to do so.
So it was with the Bnai Yisroel, the Golden Calf, and the Mishkan. G-d’s presence was first manifest within the actuality of the nation without the need for a specific time or place. That was the way the nation would have accomplished their mission of proclaiming G-d’s presence to the rest of the nations. After the sin of the Golden Calf the Jews still had to accomplish the same thing; however, they no longer had the benefit and ease of His presence being manifest through their very being. (The difference between Moshe’s natural radiance and the rest of the nation’s non-radiance.)
What effect would G-d’s presence have had over the nation had He not withdrawn and restricted Himself to within the four walls of the Mishkan? Because the Mishkan was G-d’s direct response to the Golden Calf it must also have been the Tikun (correction) of that sin. Whatever the world should have been prior to sinning was still the ultimate goal of the Jewish people – that never changed (or changes). Therefore, the Mishkan must be directly related to that ultimate goal. The Mishkan must therefore be a microcosm of the world that should have been and the relationship between human and G-d that should have been had they not sinned with the Golden Calf. Whatever the effect G-d’s manifest presence throughout the nation and the land should have been is what was supposed to exist within the four walls of the Mishkan.
What was supposed to be the mood and culture inside the four walls of the Mishkan?
A number of years ago Rav Moshe Eiseman Shlit’a explained that the Bais Hamikdash was supposed to engender seemingly contradictory feelings and moods. On the one hand, it was supposed to infuse the “visitor” with the serenity and wellness best described as an integration of reality and purpose. It was a place where everyone was able to accept their individual place within the hierarchy of the nation and where everyone supported each other’s efforts to develop their characters and talents in concert with G- d’s intentions. Those destined to be followers did so with love and acceptance. Those destined to lead did so with grace, determination, and humility. On the other hand, the Bais Hamikdash was also supposed to engender dissatisfaction with whatever spiritual level the visitor found himself to be at. Ascending the Temple Mount was to enter a rarefied environment designed to challenge complacency and raise the bar of spiritual and behavioral expectations. Seeing the Kohanim and Leviyim at their assigned tasks, encountering the premier scholars and leaders of the generation (Sanhedrin), and spending time in the spiritually charged and purified environment of Yerushalayim was intended to motivate all visitors to go beyond their self imposed spiritual limits and continue seeking and growing. On the one hand it was a place of tremendous serenity and contentment and on the hand it was a place that fostered intense introspection and brutal honesty.
The verse states, “Adam (the human) was born to work.” The focus of this verse is not work for the sake of making a living. The verse is stating that human existence is intended to be a continuous struggle toward a singular goal. The goal is to recognize and serve G-d to the best of our abilities. In so doing we proclaim His greatness and Majesty to the entire world. However, doing so is a continuous and never ending struggle. From the moment we are aware enough to exert our free will to the moment that free will is taken from us we were intended to struggle! We struggle against the influences of society; we struggle with the circumstances of our lives – both good and bad; and we struggle with ourselves to be more disciplined and committed to becoming better than what we think we are or should be.
In preparing for the struggle G-d provided each of us with the necessary tools for success. He gave us ourselves; He gave us the Torah; He gave us family and teachers; He gave us Eretz Yisroel; and last but not least, G-d gave us the Mishkan and the Bais Hamikdash.
Next week I will explain how all the tools work together to guarantee our success and answer the opening questions of why there is such an emphasis on the building of the Mishkan relative to other Mitzvos and what is the relationship between Shabbos and the Mishkan.
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.