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The Mishkan: Larger than the sum of its parts

People are like the Temple vessels: each is designed to be both spectacular alone and also create a greater whole (Pekudei)
Illustrative. A model of the Tabernacle sink and altar of burnt offerings at Timna, December 14, 2009. (Wikipedia, Hebrew)
Illustrative. A model of the Tabernacle sink and altar of burnt offerings at Timna, December 14, 2009. (Wikipedia, Hebrew)

Design is something that is often on my mind. Not in a capacity as an architect, or an interior designer, nor even as the craftsman that I like to think that I am, but as an educator exploring the ways that by intentionally planning the use of physical space, learning experiences can be significantly enhanced, resulting in broader and deeper educational impact. Through the process of research, collaboration and drawing upon experiences from my own life, what has become abundantly clear to me, is that in the realm of design — it is all about the details.

In Parashat Pekudei, we read of the completion of the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) as all the component parts are brought to Moses, who erects it, anoints it, and initiates Aaron and his four sons into the priesthood. After two passages (parshiot) of the details of the command to build the Mishkan, back in Parshat Terumah and Parshat Tetzaveh, in the parshiot of last week and this, Vayakhel and Pekudei, we read many of the same details, in much the same language, as the Torah now tells us that those commands were all fulfilled.

The fulfillment seems critically important here. It is as if the Torah tells us: you know what is going to happen, now watch as it is fulfilled, and pay careful attention as it all unfolds. Each detail, each step, each piece of metal, each color of dye, and each sheet of fabric. Each one is worth our attention, not just in the instruction manual, but in the description of the actual construction.

The Torah, famously brief in its narratives and short on unnecessary descriptions, clearly treasures the details here. Why?

Let us look at how the Book of Exodus ends. Most of the parasha is occupied with specifics of the construction of the individual vessels. Occasionally there are fascinating details included, such as the basin, the kiyor, being made from the mirrors — the polished bronze mirrors — of the women who served at the entrance to the ’ohel mo‘ed (Tent of the Meeting). Nothing is known of these women, but their mirrors contributed to the basin which served to purify the kohanim on their way into the Mishkan. The  ark (aron), altar (mizbeach), and menorah are constructed with detail and vivid imagery. This brings us to the end of the process, where we get a step-by-step recounting of the final acts of construction.

All of the vessles have already been made, all of the cloths have been woven. The metals have been tallied, the priests consecrated, the work inspected. There is profound significance to the end of chapter 39:

וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ – כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’, כֵּן עָשׂוּ. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה.

Moses saw all the work, and they did it – as the Lord commanded it, so they did. And Moses blessed them.

This verse harks back to the end of the creation of the world, where it was God who saw all the work that had been done, and he blessed it. Thus the construction of the Mishkan is an act of creation in line with the creation of the world.

Chapters 39-40 of Exodus are laden with imagery from the creation of the world, and the two narratives are connected by some of their most important vocabulary. The Midrash Tanhuma on Parshat Pekudei points to the verbal parallels between creation and the construction of the Mishkan, outlining the specifics of each, drawing the conclusion that “the place of the Mishkan is equivalent to the creation of the world.” On one level, creation ended on Shabbat, on a second level however, it only truly concluded once the Mishkan was complete, and the composite parts of the physical world are dedicated to the service of God.

With the mandate to construct the Mishkan, God, so to speak, hands off to mankind the job of creation, and in doing so there is a shift in focus from sacred time to sacred space. When God’s act of creation is described, what he completes and what he blesses is a fragment of time; when human creation is narrated, they create, complete, and give sanctity to a fragment of space.

It is worth noting, then that in many ways, the narratives of Genesis and the development of a people take place outside of a structure where God and man have a place to meet. Now, at the end of Exodus, that structure exists, the place is set up and is now blessed by Moses in a blessing that parallels the blessing issued by Hashem in Genesis. An early midrash in a work called Seder Olam asks, “What is the blessing blessing them?” (מה ברכה בֵּרְכָם) And it gives the script: “May it be your will that the Shekhina rests on the creations of your hands” — יהי רצון שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידיכם. There can be no greater blessing: may your work have the imprint of the Divine.

However, the work is not yet actually done. As we turn to chapter 40, the last chapter of all, God issues one last command: set it all up on the first day of the first month. So we arrive at the end, knowing what to expect and yet watching with rapt attention. The spotlight is all on Moses now. Even the burnt-offering (olah) was offered by Moses this time — at least according to Rashi’s commentary on verse 29. There is no one else on the stage. Bezalel, responsible for much of the construction until this point, makes no appearance. Neither does Aaron or anyone else. We watch Moses carefully, meticulously, perhaps lovingly, perhaps with a touch of awe or even fear, moving around by himself, putting everything together, step by step. When he is done, in an echo of  the narrative of the creation of the world we then hear: “Moses completed the work” (וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַמְּלָאכָה). The work is complete. Each piece is in its place, and the Mishkan as a whole is operational.

There is a movement within this sequence from the construction and assembly of the specific vessels, to putting those vessels together to build a mishkan. When each vessel was built, nothing happens. It sits there, glorious in gold or resplendent in bronze, a vessel for the divine, but lifeless despite that all. It is only when the vessels are put in their proper places, and the different component parts constructed over the course of the parsha are fabricated into a single holistic structure, that the Mishkan comes together. And when it does, the results are instantaneous and overwhelming:

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וְלֹא-יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי-שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן.

The cloud covered the ’ohel mo‘ed and the kavod (glory) of Hashem filled the Mishkan. Moses could not enter the ’ohel mo‘ed because the cloud dwelled on it, and the kavod of Hashem filled the Mishkan.

Once the vessels come together, they fuse into a structure whose significance far transcends anything each of them does on its own. The cloud of the kavod (glory) does not rest on the menorah or the altar or even the ark alone, but only on the Mishkan as a whole.

The Ramban in his introduction to the Book of Exodus says that the theme of the book is exile and redemption, and that the Children of Israel, despite still being in the wilderness, are now redeemed, because they have the kavod of Hashem in their midst, and the people have become the chariot of God himself. The Mishkan, once together, is the literal vehicle for God’s presence among the people.

But of course the Mishkan could not be the Mishkan were it not for all those individual vessels. The relationship between the vessels and the structure of the Mishkan is the subject of a well-known passage in the Talmud (Berakhot 55a). According to Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani, quoting Rabbi Yonatan, Moses first told Bezalel to make an ark and vessels and mishkan. Bezalel respectfully challenged this: how could he make the vessels before making a structure to house them? “Normally a person builds a house and only afterwards brings in the furniture.” Shouldn’t the Mishkan itself be made first? Moses agreed, conceding that that was God’s plan, and thus Bezalel got his name: be-tzel el “in the shadow of God.”

What did Moses not understand, that Bezalel did?

Moses seems to have thought of the vessels as the focus, and the overall Mishkan as something like a container for them. So the container is an afterthought. Bezalel has a different perspective: the Mishkan is the house itself, and the vessels are the furnishings. A house with no furnishings is an incomplete home, but furnishings with no house are nothing at all.

And perhaps this reflects the two perspectives of Moses and Bezalel on the Mishkan. Moshe emphasized the vessels, because he saw the tent as just a way of protecting the vessels. The real purpose, however, was the service, the avodah, the work that would be done with the vessels: the lights to be lit each day, the incense to be burned, the sacrifices offered. From this perspective, the vessels are clearly the focus of our attention. Bezalel offers a different perspective: the Mishkan is first and foremost a home. It is, and as the Ramban puts it, the portable Mt. Sinai, a place for the Divine Presence to rest among us. And as such, the overall structure can come first, and the vessels afterwards.

Certainly, both perspectives are true. Of course, each vessel had specific instructions, specific materials, specific dimensions, in order to exist as a vessel.. And the stunning impressiveness of the menorah, the sublime theological power of the ark — these are masterworks in their own right. The materials themselves also seem significant: the vessels made of gold, far outshine the cloth and lesser metals of the structure. And yet the Mishkan is clearly not just a place to house the vessels. There is something that happens when they are arranged just so. Then the Mishkan becomes the chariot of the Divine Presence.

I think, in many ways, this model and these differing perspectives offer us what to think about not just  in terms of our relationship with the divine, but also vis a vis our relationships with one another and our roles as individuals within larger frameworks — within families, and within communities.

We begin with individuals — there is nowhere else to begin. Of course, no individual is born without a context, without a family or a community; no one develops entirely alone. But this is the eternal dichotomy: having each vessel be the most spectacular, most beautiful vessel it can be — having each person be the most spectacular individual that she can be — and at the same time working within the structure of the community for the individual to contribute to the whole.

Creation of the world was the act of an in individual, but the building of the Mishkan is the work of a community. And within that context, when it comes to the people as players, as actors, as those who build and dedicate, it is clear that the perspectives of Moses and Bezalel have to go hand in hand. The individual has to be developed within the structure of the community, and the community can only be built by bringing together individuals. But neither can overshadow the other.

This is true in all our relationships. The real power of the human relationship lies in the joining together of people who can stand on their own. When we do so — each individual a masterpiece in his/her own right assembled together in community and in partnership with others, then we ourselves and the communities we build become chariots of the Divine Presence. In doing so we complete the creation of the world and the worlds and communities we build are blessed with the imprint of the Divine.

About the Author
Shira Hecht-Koller is an educator, attorney and writer. She is currently Director of Education for 929 English, a platform for the daily global study of Tanakh and is a faculty member at Drisha, where she teaches Talmud and designs immersive text study experiences. She has taught at SAR High School and practiced corporate intellectual property law at Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP. She teaches, writes and speaks on topics of Bible, Jewish law and creative living. She is also a graduate of the Bruria Scholars Talmud Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum and holds a certificate from M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. She is an avid tennis fan, an amateur photographer, and more than anything, she loves learning about and exploring the world with her husband Aaron and children Dalya, Shachar, Amitai and Aiden.
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