In our sedra today God commands Moshe to build a Mishkan or dwelling, a portable sanctuary, which the Children of Israel were to carry through the desert.
Why does the description of the construction of the Mishkan, a small temporary portable structure, take up nearly 40% of the book of Shemot when the creation of the whole universe takes only 34 verses at the beginning of Bereishit? I thank the Chief Rabbi for the following ideas. He says that it is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult is for humans to make a home for God. And that was the purpose of the Mishkan. The Mishkan brought the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, down from heaven to earth.
If God was a tangible presence to us at all times we would not be able to exercise free will, choice and moral responsibility. God had to withdraw to leave space for humanity to grow and become His partner in creation. But if God is everywhere there is no room for mankind and if He withdraws totally how can we understand what He wants from us and allow us reach out and get to know Him? God reserves in several dimensions a domain that is His. In time it is Shabbat and in space it was the Mishkan – a time and place which is holy and set apart, a space where heaven and earth meet and where human beings engage in self-limitation to create a space for God.
So the act of creation and the construction of the Mishkan were balanced - God making space for man and man making space for God.
The making of the Mishkan is described not only at great length but in elaborate detail. Precise instructions and dimensions were given for each item from the tabernacle itself, the various objects contained therein and the surrounding frames and curtains. It was built at Mount Sinai, carried to Israel and used for 361 years. It was eventually replaced by the Temple, a much more magnificent structure. Why do we need to know the precise details of the Mishkan’s construction? Surely size doesn’t matter when it comes to a home for the Shechinah – God can fit into any space?
Going back to the parallels between creation and the building of the Mishkan – the Mishkan was supposed to be a symbolic reminder of the world God made. It was a man made structure to mirror and focus attention and remind us of the world God created.
The dimensions of the universe are precise and mathematically exact. The conditions required for the universe, and for life, to exist allow no room for variation. We all know the consequences the alteration of one gene in the human genome can have on one person’s life or existence. And the famous butterfly effect, where the beating of a butterfly’s wing may cause a tsunami thousands of miles away, reminds us that small causes can have large consequences.
The other place in the Torah when precise dimensions are emphasised is in the construction of Noah’s ark. The ark symbolised the ordered divinely-constructed world that man had ruined by violence and corruption. God was about to destroy that world leaving the ark and what it contained as the vestige of order on which He would make a new order.
The elaborate detail of the plans for the Mishkan were to allow the Israelites to make space for God. To show that none of it was done at the initiative of Moshe, Betzalel or any other human the focus was on the instructions given, not their own ideas or their own importance. There was no room for ego which could lead to competition. No-one had to compete to have their contribution noticed and everyone shared in its completion. After the creation it says “And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good”. After the making of the Mishkan we read “Moses saw all the skilled work and behold they had done it: as God commanded it, they had done it”.
One of the features of today’s sedra which really caught my imagination are details of all the curtains used in the Mishkan. As an ex-professional curtain maker I can talk expertly about blinds, voiles, curtains, linings, drapes and nets. Chapter 26 in Terumah details 5 different types of tapestries, curtains, sheets, veils, coverings or hangings (depending on the translation in your chumash).
The first are the יריעת(yu-ree-ot) used to make the walls of the Mishkan. These were of twisted 6 ply flax or linen and sky blue, purple and scarlet wool with a pattern of cherubs woven into them. The word יריעת(yu-ree-ot) is also used to describe the sheets of goats wool which formed a ceiling to the Mishkan. The roof or מכסה(michseh), from the same root as the word s’chach, was made from reddened rams skins with blue processed hides above them.
Verse 31 describes the partition of sky blue, purple and scarlet wool woven with twined linen with cherubs woven into it able to be seen from both sides. This was the פרכת(parochet) which was used to divide the Mishkan and the holy of holies where the ark was placed. Our own beautiful ark curtain divides our shul from the place where the Sifrei Torah reside and so mirrors the parochet of the Mishkan.
The entrance to the Mishkan was in a similar fabric and described by the word מסך (masach) or hanging.
Lastly, chapter 27 describes the קלעים(kulayim) or hangings of 6 ply twisted linen or flax which delineated the courtyard. This expanse of white fabric suggested an area of purity. The entrance was through a drape or masach of embroidered sky blue, purple and scarlet wool and twined linen similar to the entrance to the Mishkan.
Precise directions are given for joining panels of the woven and embroidered fabrics and the means by which they were hung. These were very large and very heavy curtains requiring great expertise in the weaving and the correct placement. And all had to be able to be taken down, carried and rehung.
The Talmud, in tractate Shabbos 28a, tells us that “only the Mishkan itself is called Mishkan, the beams are not called Mishkan”. The word Mishkan only refers to the first layer of material that covered the beams.
This is confirmed by Rashi’s commentary on the phrase at the end of Pikudei “and he [Moshe] spread the tent over the Mishkan” which Rashi claims refers to the goat’s-hair covering laid on top of the lower curtain. Construction began then with the lower curtains, then the beams then the goat’s hair covering. Sforno confirms this saying “the 10 curtains called the Mishkan were erected before the beams”. One interpretation is that Bnei Yisrael, having sinned with the golden calf, were given the Mishkan before they were able to support the spiritual level it represented. Similarly, in Egypt, the Children of Israel had reached the lowest level of spirituality but they were worthy of being redeemed for what they could achieve: acceptance of the Torah seven weeks later.
Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of traditional commentaries, explains that the language describing the completion of the Mishkan is very similar to that used to describe God’s completion of the creation of the world. The midrash parallels the component parts of the Mishkan and creation: the curtains parallel the heavens made on day 1, the separation of the Mishkan’s chambers parallels the separation of waters of day 2, etc, up to the completion and blessing of the Mishkan which parallels Shabbat. In the construction of the Mishkan, God gave humans a chance to be creative and derive joy and fulfillment from their creations. The Temple in Jerusalem was a repeat of this project as we saw in today’s Haftorah.
Curtains were central to creating the space within the Mishkan. They separated the outer area from the inner area, and the inner area from the holiest place right in the centre. They also separated the entire tabernacle from the outside world. Through that separation the Israelites were able to build a sense of holiness.
We draw our curtains at night to keep the dark out and the heat in and enclose our own private space. We open them in the morning to connect our space and ourselves to the world outside.
With the absence of the Temple today, our shuls and our homes are our creative environments where we welcome God to share our space. At home we light our Shabbat candles like the priest lit the menorah, blessings over wine remind us of the wine libations, the challot symbolise the showbread and the salt in which we dip the challah is based on the verse from Vayikra 2,13 “you shall place salt on all of your sacrifices”.
When builders build a house they begin with the outside walls and the roof and complete the internal structures. That leaves us finally to do the decorating, chose the furniture and fittings, and order the curtains.
The Mishkan was built beginning with the ark, the symbol of Torah, working through the vessels and finally concluding with the walls and the framework. We should learn from that, and, when building our homes, put our Judaism first and build around it.