The Relationship Between the Structure of the Mishkan and the Vessels (Part II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy




Lecture #115:

The Relationship Between the Structure of the Mishkan and the vessels (Part II)


Rav Yitzchak Levi




            In the previous lecture, we noted the difference between the way the command regarding the building of the Mishkan was formulated to Moshe and the way it was formulated to Betzalel. Whereas the command given to Moshe began with the vessels and afterwards related to the structure, the command to Betzalel was stated in the reverse order. We attempted to explain this difference. In this lecture, we wish to offer additional explanations that account for the difference in order between the two commands.




            R. Kook, in his commentary "Ayin Aya," explains that the difference between Moshe and Betzalel stems from the source of their respective skills with respect to the building of the Mishkan. Betzalel was an artist; he had a natural sense of what was appropriate and inappropriate for the establishment of a harmonious order. His main concern, therefore, was to establish a correspondence between natural emotion and actual reality, and for this reason, he first built the structure and then brought the vessels inside, for this is the natural order.


            With respect to Moshe, on the other hand, the order was based on the principles of wisdom and morality. For this reason, the building order according to Moshe followed the rule laid down in the gemara in Zevachim that whatever is more sanctified than something else comes before it. According to this rule, it is fitting that the vessels should come before the structure, as the order is determined by importance and sanctity.


            R. Kook explains that in truth, there is no fundamental difference between the order of wisdom and the order of art. Both natural emotion and its correspondence with reality as well as wisdom and justice were created by God Himself, and both are part of Divine existence.




            The difference between Moshe and Betzalel can be explained in yet another way. According to this explanation, Moshe and Betzalel disagreed about the question of what is the highest and most essential Divine revelation relating to the Mishkan. What is the primary Divine revelation with which the construction should begin?


            On the one side, there was Moshe, who more than anyone else in the world is identified with the Torah. He understood that the Mishkan's purpose was to serve as a meeting place between him and God, and this accounts for the special importance that he attached to the ark among all the vessels. Moshe related first and foremost to the ark and through it to the word of God – the written word, the tablets of the law that were housed in the ark, and the oral word, that which God would reveal to Moshe when He spoke to Him from above the kaporet from between the two keruvim.


            Betzalel, on the other hand, saw the house in its entirety, as the residence through which God wished to dwell among the people of Israel. This residence is not connected solely to God's desire to teach the people of Israel Torah, but to God's desire to have a dwelling place in the lower world so that He may seclude Himself with the people of Israel.


            With the conclusion of the work of the Mishkan, as it is described in the book of Shemot, Moshe could not enter the Ohel Mo'ed because the glory of God filled the Mishkan. This fits in with Betzalel's vision, according to which God's glory expands to fill the entire Ohel Mo'ed.


            According to Betzalel, the essence of the Mishkan is the resting of the Shekhina in the entire structure. God revealed Himself not only through the Torah that he taught Moshe from between the two keruvim, but in a more general way, external expressed by the fire and cloud, which were visible to all of Israel.  




            According to another approach, the difference between God's command to Moshe and that to Betzalel is connected to the sin of the Golden Calf. According to this understanding, this difference between the original command and the actual execution is one of the many changes that resulted from that sin.


            In other words, ideally it would have been appropriate to start with the vessels. This is the higher reality, and therefore the gemara describes it as Moshe's perspective or vision. After the sin, however, the building started with the structure, this being a lower level, fitting the vision of Betzalel.


            This understanding is discussed at length by R. Yehoshua Heller in his Toledot Yehoshua:


And after all the laws and teachings and the work of the Mishkan that he learned and saw on the mountain, he was told the section, "See, I have called by name Betzalel," as it is arranged in the Torah after all these things. This was in fact something new, that the Holy One, blessed be He, who sees everything, saw that the Calf had been made and that Moshe himself would no longer make the Mishkan. He therefore said to him: Even though until now I commanded you to make the Mishkan and the vessels by yourself, as it is stated, "And you shall make," this was on condition that they do not sin. But now, see that I have called by name – see this novel thing, set your eyes and heart on this novelty. But He did not tell him until the next day when they sacrificed and bowed down, as it is written: "Go, get you down," as we have explained.[1]


            R. Heller suggests that the very selection of Betzalel was a consequence of the sin. The original intention was as is explicitly stated in Parashat Teruma – that Moshe himself would make the vessels and the structure, and that he himself would make the Mishkan, as is attested to by the many instances in Parashat Teruma where God says to Moshe: "And you shall make."


            It is possible that in addition to the change in the order of the building of the Mishkan, the sin also brought about a change in the very nature of the Mishkan. It is possible that had the Mishkan been built according to the original plan, by Moshe himself, it would have been at a higher spiritual level. In the wake of the sin, the task of building was instead cast upon Betzalel, Oholiav, and all the wise-hearted men.


            R. Heller continues:

For when a person (or the nation) is at an elevated level, his inner craving and zeal come before the actions of his limbs and all his external deeds in the actual performance of the mitzvot. If he is not burning with the zeal and joy of serving God, it is a good idea to stir up external action and bring the external limbs to feel them in action, and this will afterwards lead also to inner craving.

And since it has been briefly explained that the Mishkan, its tent, its cover, its boards, its sockets, and all of its external structure, its inner vessels, the ark, the table, the candlestick, and the altars all correspond and relate and allude to the majesty of man, and the stature of his external limbs – which are the means of action – and the internal organs – which are the means of thought and traits – therefore, prior to the sin of the Calf, when Israel was at a level of sanctity and craving and loving for God's commandments and their great craving breached all their external limbs to fill their clean and pure souls, then the commandments regarding the Mishkan also went this way. Moshe our master was then commanded by God to make the inner, holy, and pure vessels before the tent and the walls of the Mishkan, its cover, its boards and its sockets. However, in the small section of "See I have called by name Betzalel, etc." when the people had already begun to call in the name of God and they made the Calf, and so too when Betzalel made the Mishkan and its vessels, when Israel had gone down in its level, and had lost its craving and purity, the order of the work was also reversed to begin with the external organs, so that they be cause for internal zeal. The order of the work of the Mishkan and its inner vessels was also reversed, to make the cover of the tent and the external walls before the ark and the table and the other inner vessels.


            The main point raised in this passage relates to the question of how a person can achieve joy and devekut to God. R. Heller suggests two ways: According to one possibility, the inner craving, ardor, and desire for devekut is what stirs the limbs and brings them to joy and devekut in actual life. The second possibility is the very opposite. When there is no inner joy and craving to serve God, the individual and the nation must make use of external factors in order to arouse inner desire.


            Prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, when Israel achieved yearning for and devekut with God, these feelings left their mark on their external organs, which faithfully expressed their inner selves. Moshe therefore commanded that the inner vessels be built first and then, through them, the external framework should be built, giving expression to their inner yearning for and devekut with God.


            In the end, however, when they sinned, the sin caused a distancing from God and a loss of devekut, and Betzalel was therefore forced to start with the structure, with the external framework, and through it build the inner vessels. The external framework is what helped rebuild an intimate connection with God.


            R. Heller brings another explanation as well, but in order to understand it, we must offer a few words of introduction:


R. Katina said: Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and they were shown the keruvim, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.


Rav Chisda raised the following objection: "But they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered," in connection with which R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: It means at the time when the vessels are being put into their cases.


R. Nachman answered: That may be compared to a bride: As long as she is in her father's house, she is reserved in regard to her husband, but when she comes to her father-in-law's house, she is no longer so reserved in regard to him. (Yoma 54a)


            The gemara describes the great love between God and Israel when they went up for the pilgrimage festival; in order to concretize this love, Israel would be shown the keruvim intertwined with one another. R. Chisda raised an objection: Even the Levites were forbidden to gaze upon the ark when it was exposed; how, then, could all of Israel be shown the keruvim?


            R. Nachman answered that the prohibition to gaze upon the ark applied only in the Mishkan, but not in the Mikdash. In the time of the Mishkan, Israel was wandering in the desert and was still unaccustomed to the Shekhina, like a bride still in the home of her father during the period of her betrothal, who is reserved in regard to her husband. It would have been audacious on the part of Israel to gaze upon the exposed ark at that stage. Following their entry into Eretz Yisrael and the building of the permanent Temple, however, Israel became accustomed to the Shekhina that dwelled among them, just as a bride, after her marriage, is no longer reserved from her husband. Accordingly, it was appropriate for them to set their eyes on the ark. They were shown the keruvim intertwined, and their love for God only grew.


            R. Heller uses Rav Nachman's answer to distinguish between the state of the people of Israel before the sin of the Golden Calf and their state after the sin. According to him, the relationship between God and Israel following the revelation at Sinai and before the sin of the Golden Calf was like that of a married couple. In the wake of the sin, however, they grew apart and returned to the level of a betrothed woman living in the house of her father, who is bound by stricter modesty. He writes as follows:


And further, there is something else that caused the reversal in order. For the reason stated above, that before the sin of the Golden Calf they were meant to be like a married woman in the house of her husband and father-in-law, who is permitted to reveal herself, and need not practice modesty, to the point that the Sages said that they would open the curtain and show them the keruvim… Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman… But after the sin and the breaking of the tablets, they went down to the level of a betrothed woman, like a bride in her father's house who is bound by modesty, and about whom it says: "But they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered." Therefore, regarding the building of the Mishkan as well, the tent and the walls are exposed, and the inner vessels are hidden and covered. Therefore, prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the vessels could stand exposed in public, visible to all of Israel, and they could be fashioned before the Mishkan, for then Israel was like a married woman. But when they sinned and stood at the level of a betrothed woman, they could no longer make the vessels and leave them exposed, when the glory of God was already hidden, and there was nothing better then than modesty. For this reason the order was changed, to make the Mishkan first, and afterwards to make the vessels in a modest and covered location.


            Before the sin of the Golden Calf, the vessels could stand exposed, visible to all, for the relationship between God and Israel at that time was one of marriage. In the wake of the sin, however, there was a regression, a return to the state of betrothal. In that situation, the vessels could no longer stand exposed, and therefore had to be hidden away in a structure – and it was therefore necessary to build the structure first.


            In conclusion, R. Heller writes:


According to this, all the contradictions are reconciled. At the time of the command, when Israel was at the highest level, the order of building the Mishkan accorded with His relationship with the people – first to build the ark and the vessels, and afterwards the Mishkan. And so it is stated in Parashat Teruma. But afterwards, when they sinned on the fortieth day, God then said to Moshe, "See, I have called by name Betzalel," that is to say, the artisan will from now on will be Betzalel. And the Holy One, blessed be He, reversed the order, because they had gone down from their level, to build the Mishkan first, and so it says in the same parasha in Ki Tisa that when he commanded Betzalel, the work of the Mishkan was mentioned first.


Moshe, however, loved Israel, and after all the fasts that he observed and all the appeasements that he made, God answered him: "Behold, I make a covenant, before all your people I will do marvels." And he was given a second set of tablets, and he thought that the crown would be restored to its place, to consummate the marriage and to put the vessels before the Mishkan, as was the command in Parashat Teruma. However, when he was commanded about Betzalel, he was told to build the Mishkan first. He thought that this was said at a time of anger when they made the Calf. This is what the Sages said that he reversed the order, for in fact he reversed it, going after the reason, and to vindicate Israel he tried to instruct Betzalel in accordance with the order that God had commanded him at Mount Sinai; perhaps he would succeed in restoring the crown to its place. Betzalel, however, saw that the people were in a bad state and that the relationship was one of of betrothal and modesty, and he asked Moshe: Where shall I put the vessels that I fashion? To leave them exposed would now be impossible. And if everything was restored to the original state, why do you command me to do the work? Surely when they were loved and clean, the work was yours to do! And this is what he means when he says: "the vessels that I fashion," and not "where I shall put the vessels." Moshe our master eventually conceded and said: You were in the shadow of God, for in that small section where it says to appoint you over the work, there it says to build the Mishkan before the vessels.


            According to this understanding of the Toledot Yehoshua, after Israel was forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe innocently thought to repeat the instructions that he had received regarding the building of the Mishkan – that is, to fashion the vessels and only afterwards to build the structure. While in the command that he was given by God to pass on to Betzalel, he was told to build the structure first, Moshe thought that was stated in a time of anger in the wake of the sin of the Calf. Betzalel, however, saw that Israel was in a bad state, and thought that it would not be right to fashion the vessels first; he therefore he said to build the structure first and only afterwards the vessels.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Sefer Toledot Yehoshua (Jerusalem, 5754). In his book, R. Heller engages in an exacting comparison between the command regarding the Mishkan and its execution, and he discusses at length how the sin of the Calf, which separates between the command and the execution, impacted upon the Mishkan and its vessels.

It is important to note that if the sections are recorded in their chronological order, as argued by the Ramban, this section took place after the account of the structure of the Mishkan, but before the sin of the Calf. It is only according to the understanding of Chazal, that the Torah's stories are not reported in their chronological order, and as argued by Rashi and the Seforno, that this section was transmitted in the aftermath of the sin.