Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat, 6th Adar 5777, 4th March 2017
First there was the big event – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and then there were the details about slavery, property, damages and other subjects of law. And now suddenly a Mishkan, a tabernacle, is thrust upon us. Where did it come from? Why now?
In actual fact, last week’s parsha ends on a somewhat otherworldly note, with Moshe up on Mount Sinai, which is covered in cloud, and then Moshe is called into the cloud where he spends forty days and forty nights. And the rest is history. This may not be as momentous an event as God booming out the ten commandments but it comes close. A living person being ushered into the presence of the divine to receive 40 days and nights of personal tutoring in the Torah! That would make a good bar mitzvah gift.
Rabbi Ari Kahn tries to find an almost-parallel in Bereshit, when Yaacov dreams of the ladder between earth and heaven, with God standing at the top. Yaacov can’t go up there, but he sees it, and he promises to build a house of God on that spot (which according to tradition is, of course, near Jerusalem).
But differences abound between Yaacov’s ladder dream and Moshe’s ascent up the mountain, beyond the dream vs. reality element. One of the main differences is the milieu in which each of them lives. Yaacov, we remember, was fleeing from his brother Esau who wanted to kill him because he, Yaacov, the not-so-innocent lamb, had stolen Esau’s blessing. And Yaacov’s children – oh, his children! The only thing that seemed to unite them was their hatred of Yosef. We have been told that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of sin’at hinam – baseless hatred – and Yaacov’s family had the patent on it. Where there is dissension, holiness hides.
Moshe was ascending on a wave of unity never seen before or after in our people’s history. Having been crowned the official mediator between God and the people, he was going up, with the people’s blessings and hopes, to learn the intricacies of the laws that shaped their lives – and ours – as Jews.
But a contradiction appears here. Rabbi David Stav notes that at the end of Yitro, after the Torah is given, God’s command to Moshe about altars is very clear: make it of earth or uncut stones. Anywhere you build it, I will come. Yet here, God says build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within it (and you). Why the change of heart?
The answer, according to Rabbi Stav, is simple. We cannot live by the abstract alone. We need specifics. The Torah says do not murder, but what happens if … and what happens if it is an ox (or a car) that kills a person. Specifics are needed to come to terms with what actually happens in real life.
The same with the spiritual. If the people are told they can set up an altar any old place and God will come, this is too free-wheeling. You could set up an altar in a used car lot and hawk cars between sacrifices. And so, in dealings between us and God there have to be rules, strict rules about how rituals should be performed. The Mishkan, with its specific vessels and construction, is the first step.
By the way, this very argument is used to excoriate the Women of the Wall and their Rosh Chodesh prayers. This week they were heckled and drowned out by 2000 yeshiva girls who were bussed in for that purpose. The ultra-orthodox say, women are supposed to behave like women, not men, especially in terms of prayer. Explaining the differences to them is like talking to a … wall.
Back to our subject, now that we know why the Mishkan appears here, let’s take a look at its construction. The many materials, gold silver, copper, expensive cloths of purple, red, green, blue, woods of various sorts – all of them are intended to convey the special message of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
And what is that message? That this is where the spirit, the shechina, resides, shachen, in the Israelite camp. To this end, the structure itself must enhance the God-Israelite connection.
What we see is a clearly defined separation of entities. The Mishkan had three sections. As Rabbi Alex Israel describes them, the outer open-air courtyard was where the sacrificial altar was situated and it was open to any ritually pure Israelite. Within the courtyard was a covered area, divided into two. The first part, Kodesh (the Holy) was accessible only to Cohanim and Leviim, and the second part, the Holy of Holies, was accessible only to the High Priest once a year, on Yom Kippur.
The descriptions of the building proceed from the inside out. First we read about the Holy of Holies, then the Holy area and then the general courtyard, and as we move from holy to less holy, the materials descend in value: from gold, silver and expensive cloths in the holies, to copper and linen in the general courtyard.
And one final important fact: the descriptions of each zone always begin with the vessels for that area, and only then is the construction described. In other words, it is the content that truly matters, and only afterwards the structure in which it is housed.
On a more personal note, jumping forward thousands of years to Bet Yisrael, we are fortunate to have both a beautiful structure and content. And some of the fine content has been provided over the years by Batya Fonda, in the services, in her renditions of haftaroth, in her lectures that enlightened us about our musical traditions, her work on the website and in general, her willingness to help. We wish you the best of luck in your new home way down south, with the proviso that you visit us often and remain a part of our community.