The Days of Dedication of the Mishkan

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Days of Dedication of the Mishkan

 

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            With the reading of the double section of Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, Sefer Shemot draws to its climactic close.  The awesome undertaking of the Mishkan's planning and construction that constituted the Book's second half is now successfully completed without mishap, and, in hindsight, one might say that the project represented a remarkable accomplishment for at least three reasons.  First of all, although the commentaries debate whether the Divine commands concerning the Mishkan were communicated to Moshe before or after the debacle of the golden calf, all agree that the project was not commenced until Moshe had secured forgiveness from God and the people had repented with sincerity. 

 

            The Mishkan therefore represents an extraordinary statement concerning the transformative power of teshuva, for the people of Israel were able to overcome their crushing failure of idolatry and quickly move forward to fashion an earthly abode for the experience of God's absolute and incorporeal presence.  Rather than becoming bowed and broken by their downfall, Israel marshaled their forces and prevailed.

 

            This aspect highlights a second and related triumph, for the Mishkan's construction, although admittedly carried out by a relatively small cadre of gifted craftsmen and artisans, was nevertheless made possible only through the generosity and munificence of the entire congregation of Israel.  Moshe's call to Israel to contribute precious metals, stones, wood and textiles was immediately answered with benevolence by every member of the community.  Rich or poor, male or female, powerful or weak, politically connected or socially marginalized, no person remained aloof from the grand project of the Mishkan's construction.  Some contributed materials and others gave of their skills or of their time, those that were of means brought more and those without brought less, but no person excluded himself from the endeavor. 

 

            Surely it is significant in this connection that the silver sockets underpinning the gilded acacia boards – the very structural foundation that held up the entire edifice – were fashioned out of the half-shekel contributions of each and every Israelite (Parashat Pekudei Shemot 38:25-27).  The import of the matter could not be overlooked: this building was a joint effort of every person in Israel and each one had a personal stake in its fabrication and in its success.  By extension, the God of Israel would not allow Himself to be reduced by any special interest party, to become the exclusive and abstract preserve of the priests or else the elite and mighty patron of the powerful, for He insisted instead on being accessible to any and every person who called out to Him in sincerity. 

 

            Finally, the fashioning of the Mishkan suggested a third startling achievement, for it was enthusiastically undertaken and executed by a neophyte nation of freshly-freed serfs!  While Israel may have been well trained by their earlier experiences under their former Egyptian taskmasters for the undertaking of massive projects that demanded a high degree of discipline and organization, none of Pharaoh's monumental schemes could have prepared them for the construction of the House of God.  Here was a building dedicated not to shallow self-aggrandizement or else hollow devotions to a cruel tyrant's whims but rather to the precious activities of nurturing the mind, fostering the spirit, and cultivating the holy.  What muck-encrusted slave could have imagined a life beyond the numbing monotony of the brick pits?  What downtrodden serf could have dared to dream that one day he would answer a higher calling that transcended the daily struggle for survival, the banal existence which had such a short time ago constituted his sorry and ineluctable lot?  Yet, here were the people of Israel excitedly answering Moshe's bold invitation to cast off spiritual sloth and apathy and embrace a more dynamic but demanding destiny!  Scarcely a year had passed since their exodus from Egyptian bondage, but the experiences of the people of Israel had changed them irrevocably.  Although the long journey towards Canaan and to the ideal realization of their nationhood still stretched far out before them, while many setbacks large and small would yet interfere to check their progress, Israel was nevertheless most certainly on their way.

 

THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIRST MONTH

 

God spoke to Moshe saying: on the first day of the first month you shall set up the sanctuary of the Tent of Meeting.  You shall place within it the Ark of the Testimony, and you shall shield the Ark with the curtain.  You shall bring the table and arrange its loaves and you shall bring the menorah and kindle its lights.  You shall place the golden altar of incense before the Ark of the Testimony, and you shall place the screen of the opening of the Mishkan… (Shemot 40:1-5).

 

Significantly, the final fabrication of the Mishkan was scheduled for the "first day of the first month" of Nissan, almost one year to the day that the people of Israel had gone forth from Egypt.  The memory of the season of the Exodus, still fresh in the people's minds, would henceforth be linked with the inauguration of the Mishkan and the service of God.  On that auspicious day, all of the building elements were to be assembled and all of the vessels were to be placed in their assigned locations.  Aharon and his sons were to don their special priestly garments and begin the process of presenting their dedicatory offerings.  With everything in order and the rites of initiation completed, the regular sacrificial rites could then begin.  Although Sefer Shemot concludes with a report of the Divine cloud covering the Mishkan and God's glory filling its space, the full description of the events that lead up to this singular moment is not provided until Sefer Vayikra:

 

God spoke to Moshe saying: Take Aharon and his sons with him, the vestments and the anointing oil, the cow for the sin offering, the two rams and the basket of matzot and gather all of the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  Moshe did as God commanded, and all of the congregation gathered to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…Moshe took from the anointing oil and from the blood that was upon the altar and he sprinkled it upon Aharon and upon his vestments and upon his sons and upon their vestments, and he sanctified Aharon and his vestments and his sons and their vestments.  Moshe said to Aharon and to his sons: cook the meat at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and eat it there along with the loaves that are in the basket of dedication…do not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the fulfillment of your dedication, because for seven days He shall dedicate you…

 

On the eighth day, Moshe summoned Aharon and his sons along with the elders of Israel.  He said to Aharon: Take for yourself an unblemished calf for a sin offering and an unblemished ram for a burnt offering and offer them before God… (After the completion of the sacrifices) Aharon lifted up his hands to the people and he blessed them, and he then descended from having offered the sin offering, the burnt offering and the peace offerings.  Moshe and Aharon entered the Tent of Meeting and then came out to bless the people, and God's glory appeared to all of the people.  A fire went forth from before God and it consumed the burnt offering and the fats that were upon the altar; when all of the people saw, they cried out and fell down upon their faces…(Vayikra 8:1-9:24).

 

THE CLOUD OF GLORY AND THE MISHKAN

 

            In other words, what is described in our Parasha is not the BEGINNING of the seven day dedication rites, but rather the climactic moment on the EIGHTH day after Moshe and Aharon have completed the process in its entirety.  The first day of the first month, or the first day of Nissan, is therefore the same as the eighth and final day of the dedication ceremonies.  The preceding week of dedicatory sacrifices detailed in the section of Sefer Vayikra quoted above and mentioned earlier in Shemot 29:1-37 must therefore have began seven days before this pivotal date.  In this connection, the words of the Ramban are revealing:

 

            In the Sifra concerning the section of Dedication (Torat Kohanim Shemini 1:14) our Rabbis learned: "Is it the case that the Mishkan was set up on the first day of the month but the Divine presence only rested upon it on the eighth day?  The verse states that 'on the day that the Mishkan was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan and the Tent of Testimony' (Bemidbar 9:15), thus indicating that on the very day that the Mishkan was set up the Divine presence rested upon it because of the deeds of Aharon."  Thus the Rabbis state explicitly that the cloud covered the Mishkan on the eighth day of the dedication ceremonies, that being the first day of Nissan.  If so, then this entire passage (that concludes the Book of Shemot) in their opinion took place on the eighth day (commentary to Shemot 40:2).

 

            There is of course one other significant event associated with the dedication of the Mishkan and that is the identical offerings of the twelve tribal leaders that are spelled out in Bemidbar Chapter 7:

 

On the day that Moshe completed to set up the Mishkan he anointed it and sanctified it along with all of its vessels, and the altar along with all of its appurtenances, so he anointed them and sanctified them.  The princes of Israel who were the chieftains of their clans brought sacrifice – they are the tribal leaders who oversaw the census (of the people recorded in Bemidbar Chapter 1)…the princes offered dedication sacrifices for the altar on the day that it was anointed, and the princes presented their sacrifices before the altar.  God said to Moshe: one prince per day, one prince per day shall offer their sacrifices for the dedication of the altar (Bemidbar 7:1-11).

 

The complete chronology is therefore as follows: during the final week of Adar, Moshe set up the Mishkan and Aharon and his sons began to present their dedicatory sacrifices.  On the eighth day, that being the first day of Nissan, the dedication sacrifices of Aharon and his sons were finally completed with a special presentation, the Divine cloud of glory descended upon the Mishkan, and the princes of Israel began to offer their own sacrifices of dedication.  These offerings continued unabated until all twelve tribal princes had presented their credentials.  The twelfth and final prince offered his sacrifice of dedication on the twelfth day of Nissan.

 

            The events of the first of Nissan therefore constitute the core of the matter.  On this final day of priestly dedication, the offerings of Aharon and his sons were cohesively linked up to those of the people – the twelve princes – in order to indicate that although it is Aharon and his deeds that secure God's favor, it is the offerings of the people that are the Mishkan's ultimate purpose.  The role played by Israel in the Mishkan's construction is thus highlighted by the setting aside of the building's first real "working days" to the offerings of their tribal chiefs. 

 

            Often, in the context of ritual and religion, people tend to leave much of the work to the priests.  It is they who are expert practitioners of the faith and it is they who can obtain the Deity's blessing.  Our Parasha, while acknowledging the central role of Moshe, Aharon and his sons, nevertheless offers an additional insight: only when the people themselves are invested in the process of seeking God in a real and significant manner, does the House of God achieve its purpose.  Thus it is that the Mishkan begins as a project of all of Israel and thus it is that it is inaugurated by the dedicatory offerings of the twelve tribal chiefs, the people's representatives before God.

 

Shabbat Shalom