Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 9, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
This morning’s Torah portion is the final portion in Exodus and concludes the building and setting up of the Mishkan. For the last five weeks we have been focused on this very special structure. While the first portions in Exodus are quite exciting with lots of action and drama, describing the foundational stories of our people, these last parashiyot (with the exception of the sin of the Golden calf) cause anyone but a contractor’s eyes to glaze over. For good measure after describing the details of materials and plans of the Mishkan, the last two parashiyot review the details as the Mishkan is constructed. We get to hear it twice.
Why does the Torah spend so much of its precious verbiage on the building of this sacred space that was intended to be temporary in the first place?
Jewish scholars and commentators from ancient times until today have see a correlation between the building of the Tabernacle and Creation itself.
Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian, wrote “Nor was the mixture of materials without its mystic meaning; it typified the universe. For the scarlet seemed emblematical of fire, the fine linen of earth, the blue of the air and the purple of the sea…On this tapestry (which hung over the door to the Tabernacle) was portrayed a panorama of the heavens.”( The Jewish War 5: 5, 4).
In the Midrash Tadshe, a midrashic collection of undetermined date, its second chapter opens, “The Tabernacle was made in correspondence to the Creation of the world”. In another midrashic work, Tanhuma on Pekudey, a midrash delineates each day of Creation to find a correspondence in the construction of the Tabernacle. For example, “On the third day water is discussed, as it says: “Let the water …be gathered.” And of the Tabernacle it is written: ‘Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it…Put water in it’”
Modern exegetes have looked closely at the language parallels between the two narratives.
Nechama Leibowitz points out that modern scholars such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Umberto Cassuto and Meir Weiss and others have paid careful attention to repetitions and elicited their significance for us.
In Genesis 2: we read, Thus the heaven and earth were finished and all the host of them. And God finished on the seventh day, The work which God had made.” In Exodus 39 we read, Thus was finished all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting. And a little later, “And Moses finished the work”.
God sees the finished creation and declares, “hiney tov meod” “Behold it was very good”. Moses sees the completed work “v’hiney, Behold, the Israelites made it as God commanded, so they did”. And God blessed the seventh day. And after the completion of the Tabernacle, “Moses blessed them”.
Peter Kearney observed that the instructions regarding the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-31 occur in seven distinct speeches of God to Moses, each beginning with the phrase “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying”. The seventh of these sections is the command to observe the Sabbath in Exodus 31:13-17 which mimics the seven day structure of Creation that culminates in the Sabbath.
Nahum Sarna in his Understanding Exodus explained, “the account of the construction of the Tabernacle is…laced with phrases and expressions that unmistakably echo the Genesis creation story.”
But the deeper question to ask here is why? Why was it necessary for the ancient scribes to link the creation of the world to the construction of the Tabernacle?
Jon Levinson in Creation and the Persistence of Evil writes, “Collectively, the function of these correspondences is to underscore the depiction of the sanctuary as a world, that is, an ordered, supportive, and obedient environment, and the depiction of the world as a sanctuary, that is, a place in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged, and (God’s) holiness is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive.” There is a mutuality present in the divinely structured universe, and humanly constructed Tabernacle. God governs each, and obedience to God’s demands are fulfilled in each arena. I would add that this was also the power of the portability of the Mishkan. By making it a moving structure, the Mishkan brought its message of God’s sacred and orderly model to every space the Mishkan travelled.
Rabbi Naftali Cohn emphasizes that the connection between Tabernacle and creation suggests the centrality of the concept of order. “The world was and indeed is a morally and spiritually complicated place. It is filled with chaos, evil, ambiguity, and often an absence of control. The possibility for renewal, for harkening back to the ideal orderliness of creation, and for establishing God’s power and majesty provide an opportunity to escape from the problems of the world into the real or imagined orderly sacred place.” (from thetorah.com on Pekudey) In other words, within the uniformity and stability of ritual and sacred space, the worshipping Israelite could find a respite from the chaos of his world, and a model for magnifying order.
Rabbi Shai Held takes Rabbi Cohn’s concept and internalizes it – “In a world so permeated by selfishness and indifference, where can the God who shatters our indifference and commands us to love the stranger dwell? …(W)e are challenged to ask: How can I live my life in a way that makes space for God – not just in the forms and rituals of religion, which can so easily become shallow or corrupt – but also in the most fundamental ways I carry myself in the world? How can we - my community and the Jewish people as a whole, live in such a way as to let God in?” Rabbi Held suggests that if the Tabernacle is an earthly representation of the orderliness of God’s created universe, and the goal in the Tabernacle is to open the way for God’s manifestation through ritual constancy, how do we transform this idea into one that affects our personal lives, finding space for God in our daily routine?
I would add one more element to what Jon Levinson, Naftali Cohn and Shai Held offer. In discussing the question of the sequencing of the instructions regarding the Tabernacle and its relation to the story of the Golden Calf, Rashi famously argues that there is no before or after in the Torah and the Tabernacle instructions which precede the Golden Calf story come as a response to Israel’s rebellion. But Ramban argues that the Torah chapters are in proper order. God commanded Moses about the Mishkan long before the people sinned with the Golden Calf. They then sinned and repented, and “there was a return to the early time of nuptial love, and therefore Moses transmitted all the commandments about the Mishkan that he had been given before”. According to Ramban, despite the people’s act of heresy and ingratitude, God sent Moses back with a second set of Tablets, and a renewal of the plans for the Mishkan, the orderly sacred space where God and Israel would meet.
I agree with Jon Levinson that the Tabernacle was to reflect an ordered, obedient and supportive expression of the cosmos. And Shai Held is insightful to suggest that the ritual orderliness that brings God into contact with the people should be seen as a model to be replicated in our behaviors. Ramban’s comment on the building of the Tabernacle as a second chance for nuptial love following disruption, teaches us that even when we fail at our attempts to impart the divinely ordained order into this world and our own lives, God offers multiple second chances as long as we strive to create a space for God and for goodness in this world. The world is a chaotic mess, because we have made it that way. But God is waiting for us to acknowledge our failures and to begin the rebuilding and renewal of the sacred Mishkan in our lives. Whether it be through personal teshuvah and change or whether through communal efforts like the Green New Deal, God is waiting for us to begin construction once again.