Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
“Have them bring Me a contribution”
The sanctuary layout
Why the need for the Mishkan?
Mishkan and creation
Voluntary contributions of materials to be brought to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle):
Gold, silver and copper
Blue, purple and crimson wool
Linen and goat’s hair
Ram skins dyed red
Multicolored tachash (dolphin skins. Dolphins were found in the Red Sea and had hardy skin from which Bedouins make shoes.)
Acacia wood (either purchased locally or from a forest near Mt. Sinai or from the acacia trees that Ya’akov Avinu brought to, and planted in, Egypt)
Oil for the Menorah
Spices for the anointing oil and for sweet incense
Onyx stones and stones for the ayphod (apron) and for the breastplate
[Note: the need to emphasize the centrality of the Mishkan may account for the detailed and repeated description of its construction and the building of all its furnishings.]
Kaporet and the Keruvim
Interlocking beams (made from acacia wood) and sockets (silver) form the walls that enclose the Holy and Holy of Holies
Copper altar for animal offerings
*Courtyard of the Mishkan (note: measurements assume an amah = 24 inches)
“…Have Them Bring Me a Contribution (Terumah)”
The Hebrew word Terumah, notes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, has a more subtle, different meaning connoting “something you lift up by dedicating it to a sacred cause. You lift it up, then it lifts you”.
Until now God appeared to the nation with an overwhelming presence that made it impossible for Him to be accessible to people on earth. The command to build a house so that He may dwell “in them” (i.e., among the Israelites) and not “in it” (the Tabernacle) was meant to create closeness. The Hebrew word used here for dwelling, v’shchanti, relates to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), Shechina (divine presence) and shachen (neighbor). This was, according to Rabbi Sacks, “what the Israelites needed and what God gave them-- a way of feeling as close to God as to our next-door neighbor”.
The very act of giving is an act of gratitude, of giving us the givers the opportunity to consider the source of the good things in life that we have been granted, including life itself. Giving material goods is a way of giving thanks for what we have received. We have been granted life and we have been the recipients of divine generosity. The Torah is providing us with something simple and practical, concludes Rabbi Sacks: “Give and you will come to see life as a gift. You don’t need to be able to prove God exists. All you need is to be thankful that you exist—and the rest will follow.”
The making of voluntary donations to one another and to holy causes is where the divine presence rests. Rabbi Sacks concludes that the best way to experience the religious and the spiritual emotion “is simply to give in gratitude for the fact that you have been given.”
Rabbi Marc Angel comments on the disparate list of things to be donated ranging from precious metals to animal skins to acacia wood to spices and precious stones. Everyone who wished to participate in this communal effort had something to offer, no matter his or her financial condition. The wealthy could contribute the gold, silver and brass—or simply “write a check”. But others who donated less valuable items contributed more—their time, their effort and their skills. By their self-sacrifice and commitment and by their giving of themselves they started to build their personal relationship with God.
The Sanctuary Layout
The Inner Tabernacle, was divided into the Holy and Holy of Holies, separated by a Paroches (partition) of turquoise, purple and crimson wool thread twisted with fine linen thread on which keruvim were professionally woven into on both sides. The Holy section measured 40’x 20’ and the Holy of Holies was 20’x 20’. The Table, the Menorah and the Incense Altar were in the Holy section; only the Ark was domiciled in the Holy of Holies. The Tabernacle “roof” consisted of tapestries; sheets made of goats’ hair; ram skins; and sealskins.
The Copper Altar for animal sacrifices and its ramp was situated in the surrounding courtyard. The entire courtyard measured 20,000 square feet in total area and was enclosed by beams of gold-plated acacia wood.
There is symmetry and proportion throughout. The floor plan could be divided into two (imagined) equally perfect squares each measuring 100’x 100’. The copper (bronze) altar for burnt offerings was located at the exact center of the square on the right side while the Ark is positioned at the exact center of the square on the left! These two holy objects were the spiritual and geographic centers of the nation’s encampments in the wilderness.
The structure of the Mishkan consisted of an elegant gradation in sanctity:
The Ark was in the Holy of Holies
The furniture was in the less-sacred Inner Tabernacle
The Copper Altar was in the least-holy courtyard of the Tabernacle
The materials used:
The most sacred was made of gold
The least sacred was made of copper
The three degrees of workmanship employed according to the degree of sacredness:
The people who may enter:
Moshe could enter the Holy of Holies always
Aharon could enter only under exceptional circumstances
In the Inner Sanctuary and the Courtyard, the priests and the people had limited entry
Blue was reserved for the most sacred, then…
Purple and then…
Some maintain that since the Torah does not always report events chronologically (but thematically) the edict to build the Mishkan as presented in this Parsha occurred after the sin of the Golden Calf. “Let the golden objects in the Mishkan be a reminder of and catalyst for forgiveness for that sin that utilized gold”. Associating the Mishkan with the acceptance of God and His Torah was of greater importance in the Torah’s presentation than chronological accuracy.
Those who think that the Golden Calf incident and the Mishkan are related but insist that the Torah reports things in a chronological order maintain that this in another instance of “God providing the remedy before the problem occurs”.
Man needs concrete reminders:
Abravanel thinks that the Mishkan reinforces the view that God continues to exist in the world even after He created it. Seeing the Mishkan is a reminder of His ongoing presence and involvement
Ramban views the Mishkan as a mobile Mt. Sinai that offered the opportunity for the Israelites to remember and re-experience that awesome, nation-defining event with its fiery center; altar; offerings: and a surrounding nation encamped from a distance
The ancients built homes for their deities that included bedrooms. The Mishkan contains altars, menorah, table (for breads) but no bedrooms to avoid the sexual, licentious behavior that was part of many pagan cult rituals.
The very act of building the Mishkan for God to “dwell” in the hearts and minds of the Israelites provided a unifying and creative effort that would also have an inspiring, positive impact on the nation. Per the Or Hachaim every person had a role to play-- underscoring how the Torah (Judaism) can only be fulfilled when each one of us joins in to unify the nation.
Franz Rosensweig argues that the building of the Tabernacle was the high point in the nation’s brief history. During the Egyptian slavery, the people made buildings for the Pharaohs but now for the first time they could channel their efforts for God’s sake. This concretized their freedom.
Professor Umberto Cassuto thinks that so long as the nation was encamped in one place (Mt. Sinai) the Israelites were conscious of God’s nearness. But once they set out on their journeys it seemed to them that the link had been broken. The Tabernacle was a tangible symbol of God’s continued presence among them.
Relationship Between Mishkan and Creation
Martin Buber notes that the Hebrew words “assay” (to do or to make) or “la’asos” appear many more times in the Mishkan construction than in the Creation story. God rested on the seventh day of Creation. Here Moshe was called up to God on the seventh day after he went up to Mt. Sinai. The phrasing for completion of the Creation is “Va’yechulu hashmayim v’haaretz”- “the heavens and earth were completed”. The same root word is found here, “Va’taychal…”
Franz Rosensweig adds that “even as God ‘made’ the world so Israel now ‘makes’ the sanctuary in a new act of creation”.
Perhaps the Torah is emphasizing that the nation of Israel was starting a New World, a new beginning. Reference to the Creation underscores the need for Man to be a partner with God in building and creating. And the lesson of life is, as Ramban points out, that we need to be creative and productive in our lifetime, just as God was and is in His creation of the universe.
This is the first and the longest description of the Mishkan’s contents:
5’ long x 3’ wide x 3’ tall
Made of acacia wood
Plated inside and out with pure gold
Had a gold-rimmed edge all around.
The Torah, or the tablets of the Asseres Hadibros, was kept in it
Poles made of gold-plated acacia wood were to remain in the four golden rings, one in each corner.
Instead of first describing the “house” to be built, the Torah focuses on the holiest of vessels to underscore the centrality of the Ark and its contents in the nation’s life. [It was also the first vessel to be moved in once the Mishkan was completed.] The tablets with the divine words engraved on them that were kept in the Ark contain the core essential rules for living. And it was from immediately above the Ark that God’s voice was heard. God’s communications are more important that His representation.
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz thinks that overlay of gold on the inside, where it was not visible and on the outside where it was, reminds us that one must be “as pure in mind and heart as he appears pure in outward manner and bearing”.
The staves were permanently attached. Sefer Hachinuch theorizes that this was to avoid the Ark slipping in the event of a hasty departure. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch thinks that the message here is that, as a nation, we must always be ready to leave our surroundings at a moment’s notice and take the Torah (literally and conceptually) with us wherever we go.
Kaporet and Keruvim
The Kaporet, whose root-word means “to atone” as well as “to cover”, was a lid for the Ark …
A slab of pure gold that measured 5’x 3’ (the same dimensions as the top surface of the Ark) that was…
Three inches in thickness, per the Talmud and…
Included two Keruvim, winged forms molded from the same piece of gold, one at each end. The wings were spread upwards, sheltering the Kaporet, as if they were ready to take off. Yet they faced one another with heads tilted downward towards the Kaporet.
The Torah gives no information about the size or characteristics of the Keruvim. It is left to the Sages and the commentaries to flesh out this very sketchy description. The Talmud, based on an etymological analysis of the word Keruvim, concludes that Keruvim had the faces of children (perhaps symbolizing God’s closeness to Man). The Zohar adds that there was one of each sex.
Some scholars think Keruvim were bird-like creatures with wings and with faces of human infants. Rabbi Plaut theorizes that the Keruvim were images that reflected an unshakable ancient mythological tradition. They were purposely hidden away in a totally inaccessible place (Holy of Holies) so that the danger of their being worshipped was minimized. Though the existence of the Keruvim appears to run counter to the Torah’s prohibition of worshiping images, in fact there was never a time in Jewish history that the Keruvim were worshiped as deities. Rambam observes that they faced each other so that they would not be mistaken for a deity.
Rav Hirsch sees the upward spread of the wings towards God hinting at the protective aspects of first five of the Ten Commandments that focus on Man’s relationship with God. The downward facial tilt points to the earthly rules between Man and Man embodied in the last five Commandments. Some argue that the wings covering the entire Kaporet and downward- looking faces are about averting one’s eyes from viewing the Divine. Others see the concept of T’shuva here, when a person is the recipient of the Divine gift of another chance to change his ways and become “innocent as a new born babe”.
It is noteworthy that the first time the Keruvim appear in the Torah is when God installed “…the Keruvim and the twirling fiery sword to protect the way (or show the way) to Eytz Hachayim”. The Garden of Eden story describes a time when there was an ideal love-filled, close relationship between Man and God. Perhaps like their predecessors, the Keruvim in the Mishkan were meant to “show us the way” to rebuild relationships with God and with one another.
Rabbi David Fohrman views the Keruvim as separators. In the Creation story, they were designed to prevent Man from returning to God’s Garden of Eden, an area that He had set aside in His Universe for Man to enjoy but was precluded from returning after sinning. In the Mishkan the Keruvim appear in three places, each of which provides a type of separation. The Keruvim were…
Gold angelic figures on the Kaporet, separating the worldly knowledge of the Ark and its contents from the Divine
Woven into the Paroches, the curtain that separated the Holy from the Holy of Holies
Embroidered into the tapestry and curtains that served as the Mishkan’s roof, separating heaven and earth
When God created the universe, He made three groupings of separations:
Man strives to become close to God but at the same time is warned to remain separate from Him, to not get too close to Him. Elliot Allen sees in this the reality that Man will always be human, and never a deity, and lives in the real world where he interacts with his fellow humans. The feeling of being “one with God” is a religious grandiosity where one feels superior to others. This can lead to dangerous anti-social behavior and painful internal conflict.
Building the Mishkan emulated God. Just like He set aside a part of His universe for Mankind, we are carving out a piece of His universe for Him to “dwell in”. Just like the boundaries He established facilitated our ability to survive, the keruvim- boundaries in the Mishkan facilitate our ability to gradually move to a higher level of relationship with the Him. Ultimately, God’s “voice” his heard from between the Keruvim on the Kaporet.
The winged Keruvim imagery merges the divine (upward sloping wings) with the earthly (cherubic infants or birds with a human face). The Kaporet / Keruvim, an independent and distinct vessel from the Ark, may be likened to a computer interface that enables two totally different and incompatible operating systems to communicate with one another. This Divine venue permits interaction and communication between opposites (incomprehensible God and mundane Man and Woman). The Keruvim ’s wings reach up to hear
from above (they resemble animal ears) and their downward pointing faces draw up from below.
Interaction leads to interdependence, awe, and absorption of positive attributes, closeness and love. This model of deep involvement is suitable for both Man/God and Man/Woman relationships. This deepest, holiest of truths is appropriately domiciled in the Holy of Holies and is visited by the Holy High Priest only once a year, on the Holiest day, Yom Kippur.
Baruch Cohen points out that the Keruvim’s faces of children contain the message that every day is a new beginning, like a new child. Although one may have not reached one’s goal (including connecting with God) one always can begin anew. In Kabbalah, girl-women represent desire, while boy-man represents the fulfillment of desire. To achieve fulfillment, one must yearn and crave. One cannot reach God unless he has a burning passion to achieve a relationship.
The Table was…
• Made from acacia wood
• Coated with pure gold and included four gold rings for staves for transportation
• 4’ long x 2’ wide x 3’ tall
• Decorated with a 3” high frame and golden-rimmed edge
• The place for the twelve Showbreads (lechem hapanim) that were displayed (placed on the table on the Sabbath, arranged in two rows, left there until the following Sabbath when they were removed and eaten by the priests and replaced by fresh loaves)
Rabbi Angel notes the difficulty of translating the Hebrew term for the twelve loaves (lechem hapanim). Some think it means “bread of [God’s] Presence”. Others prefer the literal translation “bread of the faces”.
Rabbi Angel cites the unique insight of the Hassidic Rebbe Avraham Mordechai of Gur whose translation is that every person who looked at the bread perceived his or her own face (hapanim means “the faces”). The personality of the viewer influenced his/her perception. A pious, kind individual would see the bread as being fresh and warm whereas a cynical, mean individual would think the bread was stale and cold.
The message is that if one is to experience life in a positive way, one needs to develop a positive worldview. “We have the power to define who we are and how we face life. We each shape our external experiences by our internal attitudes.”
The Menorah …
Was less than five feet tall, according to some opinions; the Torah does not specify its height
Was hammered out of a single piece of pure gold
Had six diagonal branches in straight lines, or curved, (per Rambam and others) coming out of its stem, three on each side at the same height as the central shaft so that all the lamps were in a straight line
Had three decorated cups, a sphere and a flower on each branch
Had lamps (receptacles for oil and wicks) lit in such a way that the lights on the six branches were directed towards the center lamp
Had a three- legged base
The Menorah is a source of illumination and enlightenment. Professor Everett Fox notes that the description is couched in botanical terms—stem, blossom and almond shape. The shape resembles a tree which connotes permanence, growth and majesty.
o Ten tapestries made of fine linen thread twisted with turquoise, purple and crimson wool thread
o Image of Keruvim professionally woven into them
o Each tapestry was 56’ long x 8’ wide
o Two sets of five tapestries each stitched to one another
o Fifty loops made on the edge of each set
o Fifty golden clasps inserted in loops to form the roof
o Another covering of eleven sheets of goats’ hair, each 60’ x 8’, with fifty loops on one set of five sheets and 50 loops on the set of other six sheets
o Fifty copper clasps inserted into loops to form a second covering
o Another covering of ram skins dyed red and another one of tachash(sealskins)
The Courtyard Walls
Beams of gold-plated acacia wood twenty feet tall, three feet wide and two feet deep with two square pegs on the bottom
Silver sockets for the square pegs
Twenty boards and forty sockets for the southern and northern walls; six boards and twelve sockets for the western wall
Four external crossbars, each half the length, to connect the beams on each wall, and one inside middle crossbar running the length of each wall
Connected to each other on top by rings that fit into grooves carved into the beams
The Copper (Bronze) Altar for Burnt Offerings
Made of hollow, copper-plated acacia wood
6’ tall x 10’ wide x 10’ long
Had a square horn/projection at each of the four corners
Had lattice of copper netting with four rings (for transportation) beneath a decorative ledge-like border
Had four staves of copper-plated acacia wood
Had both permanence and portability in that it was hollow for transporting but then was filled with earth at each encampment
Only the Keruvim/Kapores and the Menorah Were Made of Solid Gold
The other vessels were gold-plated wood. Also, both were hammered out of one piece of solid gold. Manya Berenholz’s idea is that both objects are unique in that they involve the visual. The keruvim look at each other. The lights of the Menorah are lit in such a way that they all point to or face the center light. The hidden message in both may be that in relationships both divine and earthly it is necessary to “look one another in the eye” honestly and is often necessary to hammer out compromise.
These two vessels embody the essential core innocence and purity in the world. The keruvim--also echoing the innocence and purity of Adam and Eve before they sinned in the Garden of Eden-- refer to the carnal marital relationship that needs to be pure, honest, unadulterated and unembarrassed to survive and to thrive. The Menorah represents the spiritual [“Ki nayr mitzvah v’trorah ora”]. This striving for the transcendent also needs to be pure, honest, unadulterated and unembarrassed to survive and to thrive. It is the idea embedded in the custom to teach young children Sefer Vayikra first—let these pure souls initiated their Torah study with exposure to laws about purity.
A Metaphor for Living
Although we are presented with some very precise measurements of the Mishkan and its vessels, we still are unable to get a clear picture of how they looked. Note the difference of opinion regarding the shape of the Menorah shown before. Especially puzzling is the Keruvim. The Torah only says that they are to have wings pointing upwards and they are to face one another. No mention of measurements or features. It was left to the creativity and imagination of students of the Torah to flesh out the imagery. Perhaps there is a fundamental, broader underlying idea here. Although the outline is precise, the reader is given free rein to use his imagination—by putting himself and his understanding into the process. In this way, too, he is imitating God and His creativity when He made the universe. [ These fit nicely with the earlier discussion of the relationship between Mishkan and Creation.] “The Torah has seventy different faces” means that the Torah can be interpreted and understood in a multiplicity of ways. We are invited to be actively engaged in an ongoing pursuit of both the superficial and deeper meaning of the Torah to find the one that resonates within us.
Up until this point, the brand-new nation of Israel was like a newborn infant. It was the center of (God’s) attention. It received (from God) all its needs—for food, water, shelter, protection—without having to do anything in return. But now, for the nation to have a close relationship with God it must be willing to also give, and to be an active participant in the friendship-building process. Only then will He be with us and within us (“I will dwell among them”).
There is a lesson for us on earth as well. Parental spoiling of their offspring by non-stop giving often stunts the child’s maturation process and the its ability to build healthy inter-personal connections. Gratitude, giving and generosity are the antidotes.