There is only one chapter that deals with the creation of the whole world and four (4) different Torah portions that deal with various aspects of the building of the Mishkan, a mobile synagogue-tent which could be taken apart as needed, folded, hoisted on arts and shlepped along the journey! Why? Maybe because the world’s creation is not our (direct) business, or maybe because we can see, touch, feel and explore the world around us and get enough info to figure it out (or at least, figure out enough for our survival), but what do we know about developing and maintaining a relationship with G-d? What do we know about bringing G-d’s presence into our own, daily life? The Torah, so stingy in words, doesn’t give us what we don’t need. If it’s giving us that much information about the Mishkan, we can assume it is what we are missing.
Did you ever try to explain a blueprint in words? This is what is happening this week, and it is fascinating how many details are included. But, why not just tell the people – make a special place for G-d? Why spend so much time on the exact measurements and material-list?
Well, in a good Jewish fashion, we can answer this question with a question, and ask back, why not? What would happen if we didn’t get any instructions; if we just got a general directive to build a “house for Hashem”?
We know how hard it is to build a shul; what if this was a regional shul? A state shul? What if it was the one and only place for all the Jewish people? Right. Chances are that while we might be saving on the number of Torah portions, we would end up fighting and arguing to no end, each pushing for their “creative” and “right” ideas. It should be fancy; it should be simple; it should be made of all gold; it should be made of wood… Chances are it would not be a house of G-d, but a house of quarrel and big egos.
The Torah, sadly and wisely, doesn’t trust us to get it “right”. Further: it reminds us that in this case, the highest calling, the greatest “right idea”, is not to do “our thing”, but rather, to be able to follow instructions. This unique paradox repeats again and again: freedom lies within the structure and the discipline, not outside. Building the Mishkan, the dwelling place of Hashem, is no different.
In this unique edifice everything is symbolic and meaningful. Why this color? Why wood here? Why gold there? My favorite is the instruction regarding the ark which has two poles that must not be removed:
בְּטַבְּעֹת, הָאָרֹן, יִהְיוּ, הַבַּדִּים: לֹא יָסֻרוּ, מִמֶּנּוּ.
The staves shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it (Exodus 25:15).
The two poles are there in order for us to be able to carry the ark. This was a practical matter, but it is also a spiritual one. This has been especially true in recent decades, when many of us who did not grow up in observant homes came back to find her, still where she was left. We were able to dust the handles, pick up the poles, and bring her along. The poles in the ark are a reminder that the Torah is not stuck in any place or time. Rather, the Torah is there for us, waiting patiently until we come back to carry her with us, always portable, ready to journey.
More on the symbolism of Mishkan related items, and especially the high priest’s clothing, in next week’s Chamin & Chavruta (Feb. 8). See you then!