The Building Drive for the Mishkan

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Building Drive for the Mishkan

By Rav Michael Hattin


Parashat Vayakhel and next week's reading of Parashat Pekudei conclude the account of the Mishkan's construction, and in the process, also conclude the Book of Shemot. The fabrication of God's house constitutes a remarkable achievement by the people of Israel, who, by the time all of the elements had been completed and assembled, had been freed from Egyptian bondage scarcely a year earlier (40:2). Their achievement is all the more remarkable having been realized in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, for though the people had experienced at that time great spiritual failure - substituting the transcendent Deity with a molten image - they were nevertheless able to recover from that debacle, accomplishing sincere teshuva, and devoting themselves with redoubled effort to the holy task before them. Let no person imagine that the path to God's presence is barred from before them because of their upbringing or else their actions! Even the self-loathing slave to Pharaoh or else the idolater who senselessly serves insensitive gods of gold can yet alter the course through genuine and heartfelt repentance!

From a purely architectural standpoint, the successful completion of a project on the scale of the Mishkan represents an awesome accomplishment. The work involved not only the construction of a substantial building proper with all of its necessary fittings, but also the careful crafting of a series of elaborate and complex vessels to be placed within its spaces, as well as the fashioning of a physical perimeter round about it. The preparation of what must have been meticulously detailed (albeit Divinely inspired) working drawings, the gathering and processing of the wide variety of precious as well as more mundane materials, the organization and overseeing of the skilled work force needed to carry out the plans, all must have required great expenditures of effort and no small amount of funds. But for the architectural accomplishment alone, the people's former experiences manning the sorry work gangs that filled their quota of bricks while raising up store cities to house Pharaoh's wealth, would have been enough. It was in Egypt that the people must have learned, if not by patient self-cultivation than by the sting of the taskmaster's whip, the precious lessons of discipline, single-minded attentiveness to a task, and the overarching importance of teamwork. But the Mishkan was so much more than simply a shallow monument to one man's extravagant ego. It was the house of God, a place of profound encounter with oneself and one's Creator, a place where the petty and the insignificant, the nasty and the cruel, vaporized before the portals that serenely pointed in the direction of eternity. The construction of the Mishkan, then, while in many respects no different than the erection of other edifices, was in fact fundamentally different than them all.


No wonder that aged Moshe, upon being presented with the fruits of Israel's intense labors as they prepared to finally assemble the elements, bestowed upon them his blessing:

When Moshe saw all of the work that they had done, just as God had commanded so had they done, then Moshe blessed them (39:43).

As the Rabbis so insightfully explained, Moshe's bestowal of a blessing could only have signified one hope: that God's presence would rest upon and inspire their work with sanctity and meaning. "Moshe said to them: May it only be that the Divine presence should be manifest upon the work of your hands. And may God Lord's pleasantness be upon us, may He establish for us the work of our hands, may He establish it!" (quoted by Rashi, 39:43).


In all of Jewish history, there is perhaps only one other project that merited a similar degree of widespread support and general involvement, and that was the building of the first Temple at Jerusalem. Some four hundred and eighty years after the events of our Parasha, the people of Israel gathered again, this time to David, king of the united tribes. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to trace even the outline of those intervening centuries, suffice it to say that, like the building of the Mishkan at its time, the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem represented the culmination of a lengthy historical process. As the Ramban so insightfully notes in his introductory remarks to the book, the Mishkan narratives constitute the conclusion to Sefer Shemot because the completion of that project is the fitting finish to the Exodus saga. In Egypt, Israel was in exile of the body and the soul, distant from their land, estranged from their God and alienated from their true mission. When they left Egypt and entered the foreboding wilderness, a process of spiritual self-transformation was set into motion that soon brought them to the foothills of Mount Sinai. There, God proclaimed His word to them and designated them as His special people. Israel enthusiastically accepted their mission to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:6) and soon set about to construct the Mishkan.

For the Ramban, the direct antecedent for that building was none other than the paradigm of Mount Sinai itself, for the overarching experience of encountering God at that singular moment in time was not to become a faded or discarded memory but rather was to be incorporated into the very fabric of Israel's life forever. At the Mishkan, the necessity of preparation for the God-encounter was to be perpetuated and sanctity of the event jealously guarded, just as the people encamped at Sinai were bidden to immerse themselves in cleansing waters (19:10) and then kept from the mountain's perimeter (19:24) as the morning of the revelation dawned. For the Ramban, Israel achieved redemption at Sinai, for to live in God's presence is the hallmark of that experience. The Mishkan represented the possibility of never being far from the feeling of God's immediacy and concern, and never removed from the burden of His expectations.


In a similar vein, the building of the Temple at Jerusalem also crowned a long and arduous process. Like the Mishkan, the Temple highlighted God's nearness; like the Mishkan, the Temple's hierarchically arranged spaces celebrated the measured and incremental spiritual steps that alone could usher one into the presence of the Divine. But whereas the Mishkan was a decidedly temporary affair, borne by the people from place to place throughout their wilderness migrations, now assembled and now dissolved, the Temple's sturdy roof timbers of cedar and stout walls of hewn stone proudly proclaimed the idea of permanence. God's presence among His people was no longer to be a temporary and transient condition, sometimes felt intensely when they were loyal to His Torah and often banished from their midst when they strayed from His teachings.

With the founding of the Ideal State by David, external enemies vanquished and internal demons in check, prosperity, peace and plenty reinforcing good and righteous governance, control of the international trade routes guaranteeing for the first time a wider audience for Israel's teachings, the conditions were ripe for the establishment of God's house. David himself was denied the opportunity, though he labored mightily for its realization and regarded it as the culmination of his life's work. It was his son Shelomo who was charged with the mighty task and it was during his long reign that Israel reached its apogee. Tellingly, the account of the construction of the Temple as recounted in Sefer Melakhim (the Book of Kings) is introduced by a chronological aside that clearly ties together these nodes along the Exodus-Mishkan-Temple timeline:

It came to pass in the four-hundred-and-eightieth year after the Exodus of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt, in the second month Ziv of the fourth year of Shelomo's reign over Israel, that he built the house to God...(Melakhim 1:6:1).

The designation of the Exodus as the reference point for Shelomo's great undertaking is more than mere accounting. It is the textual proclamation that with the building of the Temple at Jerusalem, the infamy of the Exile - its statelessness and associated vulnerability, its impermanence and spiritual rootlessness, its punctuated periods of estrangement from God coupled with Israel's unwillingness to embrace its national mission - all (briefly!) came to an end. The long and drawn-out saga of Israel's national development, both material as well as spiritual, was complete, AND THE POTENT MARK OF ITS COMPLETION WAS THE BUILDING OF THE TEMPLE AT JERUSALEM.


There are, of course, many similarities between the Mishkan and the Temple. The hierarchical arrangement of its holy places along a directional axis of approach, the placement of similar if not identical vessels within its confines, the sincere service of the Kohanim that inspired its precincts with transcendent meaning, all of these things were direct adaptations of the Mishkan model. There was, however, one additional and remarkable analog to the Mishkan that addressed neither the building proper, nor its vessels, nor its ministering priests. The account in our Parasha introduces the construction of the Mishkan with a description of a contribution drive that left no one out:

Moshe gathered the entire congregation of the people of Israel saying: "this is the matter that God has commanded. Bring from among you an offering to God, all whose heart generously moves him shall bring the offering of God, gold, silver and copper...all of the wise among you shall come and craft all that God has commanded..." (35:4-10).

Moshe's call was promptly and munificently answered:

The entire congregation of Israel left Moshe's presence. All men whose heart generously moved them and women generously provided...articles of gold...women wise of heart spun yarn with their hands, and brought blue and purple and scarlet and linen and goat hair...the princes brought the onyx stones and precious gems...All of the wise artisans charged with carrying out the holy work came from their stations and said to Moshe: "the people bring too much, more than is necessary for the work that God has commanded to be done!" (35:20-36:5).

Moshe's invitation at God's behest that all of the people involve themselves directly in the great undertaking of the Mishkan was immediately answered in the affirmative. Everyone contributed generously and soon much more was collected than was needed. The building of the Mishkan was therefore not only initiated on a sound financial footing (for that alone only the wealthy need have contributed) but was undertaken with the involvement and backing of the entire nation. In this way, God made it patently clear that His house, His abode among His people Israel, was not to be the exclusive preserve of this or that interest group, of some powerful benefactors of means while all others were to have no say and no participation, but was to be the inheritance of the entire nation.


In a similar way and with similar effect, when David turned over the blueprints of the Temple to his able son, charging him to remain loyal to God's teachings and instruction and inspiring him for the great challenges ahead, he called upon the people at large to also participate. The account in the Book of Divrei Ha-yamim (though it is conspicuously absent from the parallel passage in Sefer Melakhim) preserves his call to the representatives of the nation to participate fully and generously:

King David said to the entire assembly: "my son Shelomo, young and inexperienced, was singularly chosen by God, but the task is very great, for the building of the Temple is not for man but rather for God Lord. With all of my effort I have prepared for the house of my Lord, the gold, silver, copper, iron, timbers, onyx, gemstones, and marble aplenty. Moreover, because of my desire for the house of my Lord, I have given my own treasures of gold and silver which I have contributed, over and above all that I have prepared for the holy house...who else will generously contribute today for God?" The leaders of the clans and tribes of Israel, the captains of the thousands and the hundreds, the ministers overseeing the king's possessions, all of them gave for the work of the Lord's that the people were joyous about their contribution, for they had contributed to God with a full heart, and king David as well was very joyous...(Divrei Ha-yamim 1:29:1-9).

The Torah's message, first conveyed at the building of the Mishkan and later reinforced at the building of the Temple, is still pertinent today. Though we continue to pray daily and fervently for the Temple's restoration, we must not overlook the sobering reality that the building of God's house is only relevant when the people of Israel have finished all of the preliminary material and spiritual work. When we have extirpated injustice and cruelty from our societies, when we have overcome the political challenges that beset and divide us, when we have vanquished our foes and achieved secure borders, when we have sincerely embraced our national mission to serve God and perform His will, then a Temple will be possible. Moshe's call to all of Israel to contribute to its construction, mirrored by David's call more than four centuries later, were more than simply requests for participation; they were revealing gauges of national development. That all of Israel answered was a powerful indicator that all of all of the other challenges underlying the Mishkan/Temple matrix had been energetically engaged and patiently overcome. May we too merit completing the process: "And may God Lord's pleasantness be upon us, may He establish for us the work of our hands, may He establish it!"

Shabbat Shalom