Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis, Pekudei: The Completion of the Mishkan, Pluses and Minuses

Since it’s a double parsha this week– first of the year– a second set of Five Rashis for you! A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Predicting the Future

38;21, the opening verse of the parsha, refers to the materials used to build the Mishkan, the Mishkan of testimony. Rashi says the doubling of the word Mishkan hints at Hashem’s twice investing His Presence in Temples later destroyed by virtue of the sins of the Jewish people.

This is one of many Rashis that see the Torah hinting at the future before it happens. Rashi doesn’t get into the philosophical question of how we could avoid those events if Hashem has already inserted them, by implication, into the Torah. If Hashem here knows two Temples will be destroyed, how could we avoid that?

It’s an old issue, much discussed; here, I’m more interested in the textual ramifications. If—as seems most likely to me—Hashem doesn’t know that two Temples will be destroyed, but knows the likelihood that that will happen, based on people’s tendencies, it opens the possibility that had we done better as a nation, and not had those Temples destroyed, we would never have noticed this aspect of the verse, or would have read it as predicting something else.

That sees the text of Torah as containing various indicators, hints, and implications, not all of which come to fruition and, perhaps, many of which we don’t notice, or only notice after the fact, after they come true in some way. If so, when the Gemara speaks of there being seventy faces to Torah, Torah being like a rock that can be split into many pieces, perhaps some of those pieces address realities that never become actualized, and that we don’t see.

It hints at a Torah even richer than we imagine since, for each path history takes, we would find that the text had what to say to offer insight into that alternate history.

A Tabernacle of Testimony

The second of the two times the verse uses the word Mishkan, it calls the structure a Mishkan HaEdut, a Tabernacle of Testimony, and Rashi comments that it bears testimony to Hashem having foregone the deserved punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf, by enshrining His Presence there.

The comment reminds us that Rashi held that a central motivator for building the Mishkan was Hashem’s wish to give us a structure where we could attain atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.  (Ramban thinks a Mishkan had always been part of the plan, would have been built even had the Jews avoided that sin).

The proof that Hashem no longer held the sin against them was Presence, even though denial of Presence was never thought of as punishment for the sin. When the stain of the sin still existed, Hashem’s Presence wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) rest among them, not as punishment but as a function of who they were at that time.

There are minimum standards for our being able to experience Hashem. If we don’t meet those standards, we aren’t being punished by not having that experience, we’re simply unable to have it. Unless, like the generation of the desert, Hashem ignores some of who we are, and gives us His Presence anyway.

It’s Not All About Effort

39;33 tells of the people bringing the Mishkan to Moshe. Rashi comments on ויביאו את המשכן, they brought the Mishkan, that no one could set it up, because the קרשים, the boards that made up the walls, were too heavy for anyone to lift to upright. When Moshe asks what to do, Hashem tells him to act as if you’re lifting it, and then it will stand up on its own. The Midrash Tanchuma Rashi was quoting added that Hashem did this as a favor to Moshe, who had had no role in the construction of the Mishkan so far.

At first blush, it hits a classic theme, that we have to make our human efforts and then Hashem helps out. But if that were the whole story, Hashem should have told Moshe to have anyone attempt to lift the קרשים, and they’d rise. Hashem directed this example at Moshe, in the Midrash’s view as a way to give him some prominence in this process.

I wouldn’t have thought Moshe needed any prominence—for the eight days of dedicating the Mishkan, for example, he’s going to construct it and take it down, daily. Hashem seems to think he should be given a role in the original construction. It suggests, also, that effort isn’t the whole story, that personal merits, and what Hashem is looking to do for each of us figure in how our efforts do or don’t secure Divine assistance, and to what extent. Two people might make the same efforts, with very different results. Because it’s not all about the effort, even when Hashem is guaranteeing that those efforts will meet success.

Transitioning Mishkan Power

Rashi to 40;29, on the words ויעל עליו, comments that Moshe continued serving in the Mishkan on the eighth day of its dedication (when Aharon and his sons were already serving as well). While they offered sacrifices specific to that day (as laid out in Vayikra 9;7), Moshe offered the communal sacrifices.  Two verses later, the Torah says Moshe, too, would wash his hands and feet from the כיור, the laver, along with Aharon and his sons. Rashi comments that on this eighth day, all of them served together.

Remember that on Shmot 4;14, Rashi had recorded the view of R. Yose that the original plan was for Moshe to have been Kohen Gadol, High Priest, as well as the leader of the nation (he lost that by his continued insistence that Aharon should be leader instead of him).

For Rashi, there is a subtext to the eight days of dedicating the Mishkan, the Jewish people getting to see what their lives might have looked like going forward, with Moshe Rabbenu serving as the Kohen Gadol. On the eighth day, as Aharon and his sons take over, we see that original version fade away, lost forever.

Moshe’s New Role

Moshe himself experiences that fading connection, since verse 35 says he couldn’t go in to the Mishkan once the Cloud of Glory filled it. Rashi on the words ולא יכול משה notes Bamidbar 7; 89 speaking of Moshe coming into the Mishkan to speak with Hashem (and hearing the Voice from on top of the kaporet of the Aron), whereas this verse says he could no longer come in.

The continuation of this verse in Shmot clarifies, that Moshe could not enter when the Cloud of Glory was there; when it left, he could.

The next verse says that when the cloud lifted, that’s when the camp would travel. It seems like Moshe only could hear from Hashem (at least at the Mishkan) when the Jews were about to travel. After the cloud lifted, before the Kohanim and Levi’im had dismantled the Mishkan, Moshe could enter and hear Hashem’s words.

If that’s true, it means the building of the Mishkan diminished Moshe more than just by passing the High Priesthood to Aharon. As the Presence was rested on the Mishkan, it also withdrew somewhat from Moshe.

It makes the completion of the Mishkan a teaching moment for us, if we know what to see. It is a moment that bears in it the recognition of the likelihood that two Temples will be destroyed, the reminder that Hashem forewent the sin of the Golden Calf in the name of being able to rest His Presence among us, of giving Moshe the chance to be crucial to the building’s completion, even as that completion gave him a taste of what could have been, and a limitation on when he could secure the kind of prophecy to which he had become accustomed.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.