Meaning is often found in details. It is not coincidental that the verb used to describe the completion of the creation of the world by God (ויכלו – Genesis 2:1) is the same verb used to mark the completion of the sanctuary in the desert: “Thus was completed (ותכל) all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Assembly” (Exodus 39:32). The creation of the sanctuary was intended to be a “microcosmic” parallel to the cosmic creation of the world – human beings intentionally imitating God on a human scale. While “imitation may be the greatest form of flattery”, it is an obvious presumption that God did it better!
This supposition was not taken for granted by all of the sages. The following midrash, found in the famed medieval Yemenite midrashic collection, Midrash Hagadol, offers a surprising response: “Said Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish: The Sanctuary was more beloved than the works of creation; since the works of creation were created, not through toil, nor through wearisome labor and there was no need for assistance from any creature; rather ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.’ (Psalms 33:6); but the sanctuary, required the effort of Moshe and Israel, Bezalel and his students, Oholiab and his students to busy themselves with it, as it is written: ‘And the children of Israel did just as the Lord had commanded’ (Exodus 39:32)
Where do we know that even Moshe occupied himself with its construction? Scripture says: ‘Moshe, so they did.’ (Ibid) And from where do we know that even the Shekhina (God’s Indwelling Presence) helped out with it? Scripture says: ‘The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established.’ (Exodus 15:17) (adapted from Midrash Hagadol Sh’mot, Margoliot ed. p. 776)
When we unpack this midrash, the message is quite profound. What makes the creation of the sanctuary more “beloved” than the creation of the world? Effort and cooperation! God had it easy! He created by divine fiat. There was no toil. It was “effortless”. There was no need for cooperation. In contrast, the construction of the sanctuary required great effort from multiple participants who without cooperation would not have been able to accomplish the task at hand.
This was a tremendous accomplishment not just because its outcome was magisterial. More significant, this project represents the ideas which form the foundation for establishing God’s world on earth. Human aspirations can only be met when people take their talents and use them in cooperation with others. I am certain that even God applauded the efforts of these artisans and would agree “whole-heartedly” with Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish’s conclusion that “the Sanctuary was more beloved than the creation of the world”!