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The Miskhan Revisited (2)

Rav Michael Hattin


The Mishkan Revisited - Continuation and Conclusion


Last week, we began to reconsider the Mishkan narratives from a different perspective.  Although we noted that for the Ramban (13th century, Spain) there were some rather general correspondences between the ongoing Mishkan experience and the revelation at Sinai, there did not seem to be any specific precedents in the Torah for the building's organization and structure, appurtenances and ornaments.  There was, however, a single reference that appeared promising, namely the cryptic keruvim or cherubs that occupied a position of honor atop the Ark of Testimony.  These winged creatures, golden representations of angelic beings, protectively hovered above the Ark, shielding its contents from the wanton gaze of the impetuous.  But from elsewhere in the Tanakh it was abundantly clear that the keruvim were invariably associated with the manifestation of God's presence, and the commentaries accordingly understood their function upon the Ark as designating that vessel as an expression of God's throne on earth.  It was as if His presence in the material world was predicated upon Israel's allegiance to His laws and teachings, the Tablets of the Decalogue safeguarded in the golden chest that was the Aron.  It was as if God's majesty, symbolized by the auric throne, could only hold sway over the human heart that had itself sought out His teaching and instruction, the heart that was sensitive to the call of the still, small voice emanating to Moshe at the infinitesimal point in space between the outstretched wings of the keruvim.


Surprisingly, though, we noted that we had in fact met the acquaintance of these keruvim before, on only one other occasion.  They had attentively stood at the gates of Eden, flaming swords in hand, to forcefully turn back the unrepentant Adam and his wife who had been banished from the garden after they had brazenly partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and thus abrogated God's command.  There, east of Eden, the keruvim impassively paced, faithfully guarding the approach to the beckoning Tree of Life.  Immediately, we had noted the obvious similarities between the events of Eden and the organization of the Mishkan, for in both cases, these threatening keruvim held fast on the east, shielding the source of eternal life from the unholy grasp of the impulsive. 




Having established the Mishkan-Eden association, it now remains to strengthen the argument by drawing other parallels between the two, before going on to investigate the more profound implications of the link.  Perhaps we should begin by listing some of the other elements found in each of the respective worlds, the world of the garden and the world of the sanctuary.  At Eden, of course, there was the Tree of Knowledge, an enigmatic denizen of the garden with most unusual qualities: those that partook of its fruit could "know good and evil" (Bereishit 2:9).  Of all of the trees of the garden, only the Tree of Knowledge was proscribed by Divine fiat: "God commanded the man saying: 'of all of the trees of the garden you may surely eat.  But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die!'" (2:16). 


As for the garden itself, the Torah describes it as a pleasant and fertile place, full of beautiful trees and delicious fruits (2:9), well watered by four proverbial rivers (2:10), and even adorned with prized gold, rubies (crystal?) and lapis lazuli (onyx?) (2:12).  How auspicious for man to have been placed by God in that garden, to "work" its black soil and to "guard" its contents (2:15), to exercise responsible stewardship over its bounty and to live in blessed concord with the earth and all of creation.  But life in the garden was of course ennobled by other less worldly qualities, by the immediate and ongoing experience of God's overarching presence.  In that garden, God's closeness was manifest, His spirit sustaining, His nurturing words not a heartbeat away.  No wonder the later prophetic works would draw on the idyllic vision of the Garden of Eden to describe the perfect state of affairs that they proclaimed would one day transform our wounded world, at the dawn of the Messianic era.


We have already drawn the obvious connection between the Tree of Life and the Ark of the Testimony, both of them sources of eternity, both zealously guarded in the most inaccessible of spaces by the fiery keruvim.  The Mishkan proper, the building in contrast to its surrounding enclosure, contained other prominent vessels: the Table, the Menora, and the Golden Altar that we discussed a couple of weeks ago.  The approach to the building was marked by the Bronze Laver, a large ornamental container of water from which the officiating priests would wash before performing their service.  In the courtyard was the large Altar of Bronze and upon it the animal sacrifices were offered.  And everywhere, of course, from the ornamental curtains to the gilded Mishkan walls, from the various vessels to the priestly garments, was the sight of scarlet, sky blue and purple, the gleam of gold, the scent of precious spices and fragrant oils, and the sparkle of precious stones.  While we may not succeed at establishing plausible links between all of these vessels and the garden, there are, however, some unmistakable parallels. 




The Menora is described in the Torah as a seven-branched candelabrum.  Significantly, though, in its detailed description of this object that literally means "vessel of light", the Torah unmistakably employs a lexicon drawn from the world of plants and flowers.  Not only does the golden lamp have seven "branches" (Shemot 25:32), but also those branches are ornamented with calyxes, almond blossoms, knops and flowers (25:33).  Fashioned out of a single piece of solid gold, the Menora resembles nothing so much as a tree, a tree of light.  Light of course, in our culture as well as in many others, is a powerful metaphor for ENLIGHTENMENT (see for instance Mishlei 6:23).  No wonder the classical commentaries, chief among the Abarbanel (15th century, Spain) and the Seforno (15th century, Italy), understood the Menora as a symbol for wisdom and spirituality, as a metaphor for the interrelated branches of human knowledge that ultimately all derive from the One Absolute Intelligence.  No wonder that the traditional sources, with no textual proof to support their contention (but later substantiated by a multiplicity of excavated material) all maintained that the Menora was also provided with three legs (see Rambam, Hilkhot Beit HaBechira 3:2).  If the Menora was a kind of tree, then these three legs were its roots, securely anchoring it to the fertile ground of the Mishkan from whence alone it could draw its sustenance.


In other words, the Menora was the idealized Tree of Knowledge from Eden, no longer a source of failure and frustration, a Divinely prohibited attraction that could not be resisted, but rather a source of inspiration and understanding.  The transformation from the one into the other could only be accomplished by a singular transformation of the human heart.  By the Menora's golden light, God called upon man to seek wisdom and knowledge, to exercise human reason and intelligence, not as a selfish goal honed by his destructive appetite for domination and self-deification, but rather as a humbling yet lofty pursuit, a responsible means of repairing the world.  In other words, to use our intellect and acumen in God's service rather than to banish HIM – and with Him all vestiges of human conscience and moral awareness, "knowledge of good and evil" – from our lives. 




As we saw last time, the Table of the Showbread was an expression of God's providence.  Our physical sustenance, the preservation of our bodies and our health, depends upon food, the proverbial "bread" that every civilization celebrates, in one form or another, as the staple and staff of life.  The twelve loaves upon the Table indicated that the entire people of Israel, the twelve tribes, drew their livelihood from God above who alone could be depended upon to provide.  According to tradition, though the loaves remained on the Table all week long, only being replaced from one Shabbat to the next, they remained miraculously fresh, as flavorsome as at the moment that they had been carefully removed from the oven.  In this way, the loaves indicated that God's providence was always manifest, His saving sustenance never absent or spent.  Thus it was that the Table of Showbread provided the perfect analog to God's ongoing spiritual and intellectual inspiration, the Golden Menora that stood just opposite it in the holy space of the Mishkan.


The ideal of the Table was clearly a reflection of the blessed state of Eden, in which one's satiation was never more than a redolent tree branch away.  The fruits of Eden were always ripe, their taste never stale, because God's presence was in the garden.  Recall that man was placed in the garden "to work it and to guard it" but as the Ramban (13th century, Spain) already perceptively noted in his commentary (Bereishit 2:8): 

God placed him there to plant wheat and grains, grass and spices, to harvest, pluck and consume at his leisure…for the trees of the garden really required no care… 

How significant that when they were driven out, their pastoral existence was transmuted by His curse that "by the sweat of your brow you shall eat BREAD" (3:19), as toil, drudgery and exertion now colored the pursuit that had once been called only "work."


The Table, then, was once again the chance to make amends, to restore the perfect state by ascribing to God what was His.  "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", "I am God your Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, stretch your mouth wide and I will fill it", "You open Your hand and satiate the desire of all manner of life" (Tehillim 24:2; 81:11; 145:16). 




We could continue to draw many additional parallels.  What were the acacia planks of the Tabernacle, that the text insisted had to be placed "standing" (Shemot 26:15) or as the Talmud relates "after the manner of their growth" (Tractate Succah 45b), if not the trees of the garden, for "God Lord caused the earth to grow every kind of tree that was beautiful to behold and good to eat (Bereishit 2:9)?  What were the precious materials, the fine gold and precious jewels of the vessels and the vestments, if not the fantastic landscape of Eden?  Even the lapis lazuli ("shoham" in the original Hebrew) of the garden (Bereishit 2:12) found its place upon the epaulettes of the High Priest (Shemot 28:9)!  What was the polished Bronze Laver of the forecourt if not the suggestion of the four life-giving rivers that watered the garden continuously, now abstracted as the means of sanctification before entering the holy precinct?


But most telling of all, what was the implication of the High Priest, bedecked in his golden finery and adorned by the names of God and Israel, if not the suggestion of the first man Adam who had once stood in His presence and hearkened to His voice?  In a remarkable formulation first advanced by Sa'adia Gaon, the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) maintains that while the world at large had humanity, and the human microcosm had the heart, the Mishkan had the High Priest ("Short" commentary to Shemot 25:7).  The High Priest, then, was the potent symbol of humanity's potential, what was possible if man could only deign to live his life in the life-giving shadow of God's constant care.  In the conceptual world of the Mishkan, the service of the High Priest who, try as he might, could never lose sight of his God-appointed task, was the return of humanity to the garden and to its overwhelming landscape of continuous Divine immediacy.  To enter the holy precincts of the Tabernacle was to finally confront the keruvim east of Eden and to claim our rightful place before the Tree of Life. 




I would like to conclude with a passage from the Prophet Yechezkel, who flourished in Babylon as Jerusalem and the Temple were turned to ash.  In his mind's eye, Yechezkel sees a brighter future for the people of Israel, a time when they will be restored to their land, to their city and to their God.  Though the metaphors that he employs are not exclusive to him but find expression in the Messianic visions of many a prophet of Israel, Yechezkel's words are particularly poignant and help us draw the parallel not only between the Garden of Eden and the Mishkan, but also between the Garden of Eden and the future Temple.  One day, united humanity will be inspired to sincerely serve the God of Israel, and the Temple at Jerusalem will finally become the gathering place for all people to learn of His ways:


He returned me to the entrance of the House and behold water emerged from under its eastern threshold, for the entrance to the House was from the east.  The water descended from under the right slope of the house, south of the altar…at a distance of a thousand (cubits), I went through ankle deep waters.  He measured a further thousand, and I traversed knee-deep waters.  He measured a further thousand, and I went through waist-deep waters.  He measured a further thousand, and the waters became a torrent that I could not pass, for the waters rose up at swimming height, a stream that could not be traversed.  He said to me: "Do you see it, son of man?" as He caused me to walk and approach the banks of the stream.  When I returned, I saw that on either side of the banks of the stream there was a multitude of trees.  He said to me: "These waters go out to the eastern regions and descend to the plain, they will go out to the (Dead) Sea and heal its waters!  Al manner of life that swarms there will live and its fish will be numerous, for these waters will flow there and heal and enliven all that contact them at the stream.  The fisherman will stand (on its banks) from E'in Gedi to E'in E'glaim and spread wide their nets, for the fish shall be as numerous as the fish of the Great (Mediterranean) Sea.  Its swamps and hollows will not be healed, for they shall provide salt.  ON EITHER BANK OF THE STREAM SHALL BE ALL MANNER OF FRUIT TREES, WHOSE LEAVES SHALL NEVER WITHER, WHOSE FRUITS SHALL NEVER FAIL, WHO MONTHLY WILL YIELD NEW PRODUCE, FOR THEIR WATERS COME FROM THE HOLY TEMPLE.  THEIR FRUITS SHALL BE FOR FOOD AND THEIR LEAVES FOR HEALING!" (Yechezkel 47:1-12). 

Shabbat Shalom     


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