The Book of Exodus, Shemot, starts with the saga of enslavement and deliverance. Next the narrative moves away from story-telling, toward lawgiving and the Covenant: the Ten Commandments in parashat Yitro and the many instructions of Mishpatim. In the third section, we have the instructions and implementation of the architectural, interior design, and priestly accoutrements needed for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. We get the instructions in Terumah and Tetzaveh, interrupted by rebellion (Golden Calf) and more law-giving in Ki Tissa, and at last the implementation of the instructions for the Mishkan in Va-Yakhel and Pekudei. In both Ki Tissa (Ch 31) and Vayakhel (Chap 35), the building details are interrupted to with a warning to observe Shabbat.
The four parshiyot that focus on the Mishkan are very emotionally rewarding texts. I love the attention to all the “stuff”.
I learned a lot about them from the commentary on Exodus by Rabbi Umberto Cassuto on Exodus. Cassuto lived from 1853 to 1951 and had been the chief rabbi of Florence. He fled to Palestine in 1938 and took a position at Hebrew University. He died in 1951, the year his book, Commentary on Exodus, was published. My copy is from Max Ticktin’s z”l collection, and I wonder whether Max had Cassuto as his teacher in 1947 and 1948 when he and Esther lived there.
While he discussed the construction in great depth in his book, in some ways, Cassuto was not too concerned about the details. In his mind, just as narrative portions of Humash are not meant to teach history for its own sake, but to give, by narration, religious, ethical, and national instruction, so too is this section not meant to describe antiquities of Israelite worship, but to convey what was considered conducive to the idea of the presence of God in the camp of Israel.
In fact, he insisted that the details given in parashat Terumah were not a blueprint. I imagine he wouldn’t have cared for Moshe Levine’s book, The Tabernacle, along with others who have tried to recreate the Mishkan in tiny detail. For example, Cassuto notes, Adonai instructs Moshe concerning the Lampstand by showing him its likeness, so it’s apparent that the Lampstand is not fully described here.
Cassuto advised considering what other ancient cultures were doing, because those would inform the Israelites’ sense of sacred space. We could then learn what is important to the Israelites by contrasting their Mishkan with other Sanctuaries of the time. For example, Ugaritic poems describing temple of Baal included furniture items that do and don’t overlap with our Mishkan: throne, footstool, lamp, chest of drawers, table and its utensils, bed. The bed and chest of drawers would be necessary in idolatry: Baal needed a bed to lie down on, and drawers for his garments. In the Israelite Mishkan? No bed, no chest of drawers.
Cassuto goes on to argue that the materials: metals (gold, silver, bronze); items spun or woven (wool, flax); coarser materials (goat’s hair); along with rams’ skins and dolphin(?) skins – were all entirely plausible. The “dolphin skins”, for example, might be a sea-cow found in Red Sea whose skins were used by Bedouins for sandals. Wood is specified in the Mishkan parts inventory, and indeed, atzei shittim, likely acacia, is found in desert. All these materials were possible. His comment contrasts with medieval commentators who struggled to understand this materials list. Cassuto offers the perspective of someone who actually lived in Israel.
So let’s imagine we have an entirely plausible Tabernacle. Why was it so important?
The story has emotional resonance for anyone who has kept a momento of a person or experience that is now far off or long ago. Because the Israelites are clearly in it for the emotion. This sequence of parshiyot starts with Terumah: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus25:1) An instruction for VOLUNTARY action? That’s especially astonishing given that recent text of the Ten Commandments and Laws are covenantal and mandatory, not “asher yidvenu libo” – whose heart so moves him.
There are of course a number of commentaries on that—
Terumati – “my gift” – God’s gift to us is that we have the internal motivation to be generous and have hearts that can be moved. (Ohr HaChaim)
Tikhu et terumati – The imperative verb, tikhu, is actually“take” and not “give” – because the Israelites’ actually received a gift of being able to volunteer (Beit HaLevi).
Etc. Not exactly the wording you’d find in a home improvement contract.
Bravo to God for figuring that out. BUT: Despite this example, God is often not so good at figuring out people and physical things. In the Garden, God put a beautiful tree in front of Adam and Eve and told them “you can’t touch this” – then gets sore at them when … surprise!… they do. In our parshiyot, Moses gets a long set of instructions to build this Mishkan, and that keeps him away from the Israelites, a real let-down after the extraordinary experience at Sinai. Naturally, they want a memento, and before you know it, the entire Tabernacle narrative is disrupted by the pesky Golden Calf. Not just Moses, but God has been gone a long time, and the Israelites are brooding. To add to the insult, God is typically generous with Moses about sensory experiences – Moses gets a burning bush and a cleft of rocks behind which to witness God’s glory, whereas the Israelites are supposed to wait and be patient, and like a little kid, not touch anything. NOT!
So I will interrupt to show you a memento that means a lot to me. In the photo is a Czech dictionary that my father brought home from World War II. He was stationed in Czechoslovakia at the war of the war to interrogate German prisoners, using his Yiddish to pull together a German interview. He loved his time in Czechoslovakia and befriended a family there along with the local priest. I knew a bit about that. But he died 40 years ago, and as strongly as I know that I felt safe in his presence, I didn’t really know him as I would like to now. So the dictionary takes on out-size importance. It’s a bit of something my father touched, that my father took notes in, that he found important, and, as I can tell from his handwritten vocabulary lists stuffed inside the cover, that he devoted some effort to, that was a part of his life experience he found important. Sometimes I feel that if I look at the dictionary, maybe I’d know my father a little better, or at least, could say I’m perpetuating the family story in a way I wouldn’t feel if I was just remembering him telling me the story.
So I congratulate the Israelites on bringing their terumah and for supporting the Tabernacle artisans Betzalel and Oholiab, and even for wanting a Golden Calf. God was gone, and they wanted something to reach out to because they wanted to know God better and they wanted the experience of feeling physically engaged with God, using all their senses. They weren’t the most mature Children of Israel, and God wasn’t the most perceptive, reactive teacher. Believe me, it happens all the time at school.
Finally, perhaps that tension of physicality and spirituality relates back to the mention of Shabbat that happens twice in the Mishkan narrative. The rabbis connect the laws on the melakhot of Shabbat, forbidden work and artisan activities, to comparable steps in building the Temple. Now on Shabbat, we get the neshama yetira, the extra soul. With an extra soul, we can take a pass on physical objects and forgo all those arts-and-crafts melochos. But 85.7% of the time (that’s 6 out of 7), we are stuck with our one, clumsy soul, the same soul that spurs you to comb the overpriced airport shops at the end of your vacation for that last physical souvenir (a word which is French for “to remember”), even when your memories should suffice, a very minor instance of Golden Calf-ishness. You’d think God would understand that need, and not pull a 40-day retreat. God has very high expectations.
So that’s how I understand the Mishkan, and in the end, God does too, because God even promises to dwell there, among the Israelites. In one midrash, Shemot Rabba 34:1, God is willing to constrict God’s presence to within the tiny space of one square amah so God can fit in the Mishkan and be close to the people. Because in the end, that’s where we, the physical Jewish people, are.