Shemot (Ex) 25:1-27:19
This week’s parashah begins the instructions concerning the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The purpose of the Mishkan, first and foremost, was to house the unique presence of G-d (Ex 25:8). This is an amazing thing, that the Almighty One would dwell among men in a house they would build. According to the Pesikta, Moshe was equally amazed.
Moshe trembled before G-d, “How is it possible to build a house for G-d, Who encompasses and transcends all the heavens?” And G-d replied, “not by My standards, but in accordance with their abilities..” And when G-d introduced the sacrifices, Moshe asked, “would all the animals in the word provide even a single fitting sacrifice?” And G-d replied, “not like your thinking, but a single sheep in the morning...” Finally G-d instructed Moshe concerning the annual gift to the Temple ‘each person for the redemption of his soul’. Moshe asked, “How could a person ever give enough to redeem himself.” G-d replied, “Not like your thinking, but one-half shekel according to the sanctuary shekel.”
Ultimately, when we look at things like these, we truly realize that God’s ways are so much higher than ours. How could the glory of G-d reside in a temple made by men? How can the glory of G-d reside in a temple comprised of man himself? How does a man killing an animal on an altar impact or please a non-corporeal Being? How does the giving of our money or our lives please a G-d Who has need for neither? How does the giving of a piece of money redeem a person? How does our faith in an event that happened two millennia ago accomplish the same thing?
The incarnation (And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us) is the ultimate expression of the fact that the G-d we serve and love constantly meets us at our level and He understands our limitations. A group of slaves (or anyone else!) could never have built a temple adequate for the Limitless One. But they gave what they had and they constructed something G-d could dwell in. As we see in other places in Torah, there are different sacrifices for people of different means, a lamb for some, birds for another, both equally acceptable to YHVH. The poor widow who gave the two mites at the Temple gave more than the wealthy who gave of their abundance. G-d does not ask the impossible of us, He knows our limitations and abilities. That is why Torah is so down to earth. There is nothing contained in it that is difficult or impossible. Sometimes the mitzvot require sacrifice and in our western culture it is inconvenient but nothing is beyond our means or ability. G-d has taken the mundane things in our lives; gold, cloth, a bird, a coin, and sanctified it. But isn’t that what Torah is about, bringing sanctity and meaning to every area of life so that at every moment of life we can have at least a little experience of the Divine?
In Parasha terumah, we read about the plans for the construction of the Mishkan. The curtains, the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat, the various tables, lamps and utensils. All the things were to be made in exactly according to what Moshe was shown because the book of Hebrews tells us that the Mishkan is a copy of that which is in the heavenlies (8:5). The purpose of the Mishkan is described in Shemot 25:8. “Then have them make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them.” This tells us something very fundamental about our relationship with G-d.
Why did YHVH want to dwell among them? It is because He wants us to know Him. He doesn’t have to come down to know us, He is G-d, He already knows the innermost thoughts of man. The purpose of the Mishkan is to help us know G-d, it is a specific and local revelation of Himself. This is one of the great differences between the religion described in the Scriptures and others. In many other religions, what the adherent tries to do is find G-d, however defined. In the Bible, the constant theme is G-d seeking man, G-d revealing himself to man, wanting man to get to know Him. The greatest expression of this is the revelation of Messiah, the High Priest Who sympathizes with our sufferings, the G-d who tabernacled among us giving us a complete revelation of Himself. He walked and talked with men the way it was in the beginning and the way it will some day be again.
With that idea in mind, the Mishkan also tells us how we get to know Him. The central feature of the Mishkan was the holy of holies in which was the ark of the covenant. And what was in the ark of the covenant? The covenant, the Torah. The primary revelation of G-d is the Torah. In contrast with a book like the Koran, Torah is not just rules for life but the way to know G-d. Commentary from Jewish sources, in contrast to most Christian sources which will only explain what a verse means in historical context, explain what a verse or word means in relationship to G-d and what it says about Him. This primary use of Torah was not limited to Moshe’s time but it is true for the followers of Messiah. If we really want to know Messiah and the revelation of G-d through Him we must understand Torah, we must study Torah because it speaks of Him (Lk 24).
What does this mean for us in our daily lives? It means the study of Torah should be our top priority. Nothing should come before Torah study. Even prayer. Even service. Why? Because prayer and service, while vitally important, originate in G-d. Our worship, our acts of mercy, our service all originate with Him. They are in a way circular, they originate with G-d, they flow through us and back to Him. Study on the other hand, is one way. Study is listening to YHVH. We get to know Him, it is a conversation in which we do the listening and G-d does the talking. And as we listen to Him we learn about Him, we get to know Him and the more we know Him the better and deeper our relationship. That kind of relationship is what we were created for and it is G-d’s deepest desire.
This weeks parasha details the construction of the many items that furnish the tabernacle, as well as the tabernacle itself. G-d commanded these things to be constructed so He would have a place to dwell among the people of Israel. Everything, every detail, has deep meaning and exists to facilitate communication with YHVH. One of the ways this is accomplished is through an understanding of why the articles in the Tabernacle were made the way they were. The details tell us things about ourselves and the way we should shape our lives so we can communicate with G-d in an intimate way.
As an example, we are just going to look at the mercy seat, the cover for the ark. It’s description is found in Shemot 25:17-22. It was to be hammered out of one piece of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half wide, about a handbreadth in depth. Two cherubim were to be placed on the cover, facing one another with outstretched wings. It is from here that the unique and intimate presence of G-d would dwell and from where He would communicate with Moshe and the rest of the people of Israel.
Now let us begin our investigation of the meaning of these elements. The cover was made of pure gold, representing the purity and uniqueness of the human soul which is at the same time an integral part and a separate entity from the body to which it is joined. Part of the morning prayers is the recognition that G-d gave each individual a pure soul and it is our job to keep it that way until it is returned.
The cherubim that are part of the cover had the faces of a male and female child and their wings spread upward over the ark. The wings represent the desire of each soul to soar to the heavenlies and unite with the Creator. This is a yearning placed within each person and the ark represents the proper context in which the soul can take flight and the individual can become that which he or she was created for. The cherubim face one another, show us that we only reach true spiritual perfection when we are united with our fellow man in community. Yet the focus of the cherubim are toward the cover. The cover is for the ark which housed the Torah. We keep our gaze on the place where the presence of G-d appears and on the Torah. It is in keeping this focus that we are able to live in harmony with man and G-d the way YHVH intended.
This week God begins to give Moshe the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The are very detailed and elaborate. But aside from all the details, why was it necessary? The patriarchs, Noah, even Abel, got along well with simple stone or earthen altars like the one outlined in our previous parasha. We certainly cannot say that their relationship with YHVH was hindered or incomplete because they did not have a fancy temple. What about Isaiah or Ezekiel of Yochanon? They had visions of things that most of the High Priests could only wish for. We also know that for much of the history of Israel, the Mishkan and the temple were ignored, desecrated or non-existent. Even when it was in use, the numbers of people that participated on a regular basis was rather small. So why was it so important and what does it show us?
For the average Israelite, his participation in the temple was limited. He would never see the ark or meet with God between the cherubim. Does this mean that his relationship with his Creator was incomplete or inferior to that of the Kohen HaGadol? Was only one man in Israel privileged to speak with God and have an intimate relationship? We know that this is not true as the previous examples illustrate. The Torah also says there were prophets whom God would speak with in visions or dreams, not from between the Cherubim on the ark in the Mishkan. So what did the Mishkan mean to the average Israelite and by extension, us?
Both the Torah and the book of Hebrews tell us that the Mishkan is a copy of the heavenly reality. It is an attempt to manifest that heavenly, spiritual reality here on earth. We know that Y’shua and the High Priest performed duties that mirrored one another, what goes on on earth is a shadow of what goes on in the heavenly realms. This is why the actual presence of the earthly tabernacle is secondary, the work of the Mishkan still goes on in reality, just not in our physical reality. When all is working as it should, both realities manifest at the same time. When the presence of God dwelt in the Mishkan, this was so. When it departed in Ezekiel’s time all that was left was a fancy building.
Our parasha tells us that each person had the opportunity to participate in the construction of the tabernacle either through their giving and/or their assistance in the actual construction. Last week we talked about ‘echad’, the people being one and accomplishing great things as they brought their spirits together. This is a wonderful example of echad. They all had a part to play in bringing about this manifestation of the spiritual in their midst. In our communities, we all have a part to play as well. When we have studies or discussions, everyone there has something to contribute that will be edifying to the whole. When we worship or teach, everyone is an active participant. From cooking a snack for the afternoon meal the day before to cleaning the shul to studying the parasha ahead of time and bringing questions or insights, it all contributes to manifesting the presence of God in our midst. No contribution is more or less important. In Echad all are equal. The high priest would not be glorious if no one contributed the stones or gold for his finery. If no one brought a sacrifice to worship, the priests and levites cannot fulfill their function. If the women did not weave, the tabernacle wouldn’t exist. So no one can say one contribution is more or less important than another. If we will learn to work together and treat each others contributions no matter how large or small they appear to us (remember the widows mite), we will go a long way toward bringing the presence of YHVH into our midst.
The descriptions of all the implements of the Mishkan evoke a lot of emotions, and so they should. Awe would be one. Perhaps a nostalgic longing for the time when it actually existed and was used. Frustration at either not having it available or even if it was, being unable to participate because of an accident of birth. But what do we really feel about the Mishkan? Is it not our desire to connect with God? Isn’t this the purpose of the Mishkan? Do we feel a little cheated these days? But why?
Let’s look at the facts. Moshe has been talking to God and communicating His messages to the people from the beginning, no Mishkan or Temple necessary. Atonement and forgiveness is applied to the people without the Mishkan as we will see in a future chapter about the Golden Calf. The patriarchs operated without a Mishkan or any fixed place of worship their whole lives. The Israelites themselves lived without the Mishkan for most of their history. The average Israelite could not participate in the Mishkan and become intimate with God the way the priests did. I say these things not to minimize the importance of the Mishkan to the nation, for that is where it’s importance lies, but to the individual and, by extension, to you and I.
What does the Mishkan mean to us? When we think about the ark and the altars and the presence of God between the cherubim are we not longing for and authentic, indisputable encounter with that which is beyond our mundane existence? Are we looking for something to help us live in control and without fear? Are we looking to give meaning to our brief existence? Do we think there is some other way to happiness other than that which our culture shows us? We are looking for something that really works in our lives, something that can give us answers when we need them, something that can show us the path clearly, something that will always be there when we need help. We think the Mishkan provides these things. With the Glory of God over the camp, there was nothing to fear. The priest had the Urim and Thummim to provide answers and guidance. The Torah that emanated from the mercy seat gave meaning and direction. We have none of that...or do we?
People, including most of us, are always looking to meet someone or go someplace where they will be shown the way, where they will find the truth. Some people make pilgrimages to places they think are special and they hope some of it will rub off. Others follow a teacher they think has the words they need to hear. Or we may study sacred texts or other books because we think that within them is the formula for life. None of these things or people have the power to make us what we want to be, to answer our questions completely. The wisdom in a text or a teacher or even a place is to reveal to us who we really are. For example, the Bible is a reflection of who we are at any one moment. That is why if we are seeking and growing, it is never the same twice, it is reflecting a new person every day. It is the mirror we look into to gauge our progress. When we are on a diet and we look at ourselves in the mirror, the mirror does not help us lose weight. It’s only job is to reveal the work that is yet to be done, the work we must do ourselves.
Y’shua said the kingdom of God was within. Everyone was looking for something or someone from the outside to bring about their idea of utopia. Y’shua said that the only way to do it was from the inside, no miracle or teaching of his could do anything but reveal the work that needed to be done. Paul said that we are the temple of the living God. There is nothing that the Mishkan represents that is not inside of us waiting to be revealed or utilized. We have taken the menorah from inside the holy place and held it out to illuminate the path we wanted to take. We have taken something holy and used it as a common candle in our mundane world for our own ends. No wonder it’s light doesn’t show us what we want to see. The function of the menorah is to illuminate the inside of the Mishkan, to allow it’s light to reflect on all the beautiful things that make the Mishkan functional. Without light there is no function, there is no discovery. We don’t need the light outside but within. The most crucial step is finding the truth of life is to start looking in the right place.