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The Microcosm of the Mishkan

Rav Michael Hattin




Parashat Teruma introduces the longest narrative section of Sefer Shemot, namely the textual blueprints for the construction of the Mishkan.  Beginning with this week's reading and continuing until the very end of the book, the Tabernacle and its appurtenances are spelled out in exhaustive detail.  The section opens with a call to the people to contribute materials and expertise (25:1-10), and then continues with a comprehensive description of each one of the vessels, building elements, and priestly garments in turn.  The passages are unambiguous, spelling out the form and function of each item with sufficient detail to allow us – more than three thousand years after the fact – to reconstruct them with more than a reasonable degree of confidence. 


The fundamental ordering principles of the Mishkan are quite transparent, and in years past we have considered them at length.  In essence, the portable building and its contents were arranged on axis according to a rigid hierarchy, with each space of successively greater sanctity set off from the others by some filtering element, be it a courtyard, a curtain, or a threshold.  The movement through the spaces thus became a reverential exercise in approach, for each node along the axis drew the supplicant closer to the encounter with the Divine.  The Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum containing naught but the gilded Ark of the Covenant containing the Tablets of the Decalogue, and surmounted by the golden representation of the winged creatures known as the Keruvim, constituted the climactic destination of the journey.  Entry to its perfect cubic silence was barred to all, excepting the High Priest who could hesitantly approach but seldom.  Thus, with awesome solemnity was the foundation idea that animates the God-man encounter proclaimed in material space: sincere entry into God's presence can only be a function of intense physical and spiritual preparation followed by an incremental but single-minded progression towards the goal.  That is to say that for the person who genuinely seeks the closeness and immediacy of God, there can be no short cuts to the "Holy of Holies."





The classical commentaries have offered a number of provocative and profound interpretations for the meaning behind the Mishkan, and we have already discussed these in past lessons as well.  To concisely recall, for the Ramban (13th century, Spain) the Tabernacle was a potent recreation of Mount Sinai, a bold attempt not only to preserve the memory of God's revelation, but also to transform that singular experience into an ongoing encounter.  Through the vehicle of the Mishkan, God's presence could be felt and His instruction sought.  At the site of the Ark – itself a symbol of God's throne on earth and therefore the conceptual core of the building – God would meet with Moshe and speak with him: "Place the Ark cover upon the Ark and within the Ark place the testimony that I will give you.  There I will meet with you, and from between the two keruvim that are upon cover of the Ark of the Testimony I will speak with you, concerning all that I will command you to communicate to the people of Israel" (25:22). 


For the Seforno (15th century, Italy), in contrast, the Mishkan was like God's abode, not unlike a human abode insofar as externals were concerned.  It too was furnished with familiar vessels after the manner of a human home, but, unlike human furniture, the purpose of the elements could only be comprehended if understood as bold metaphors.  While the furniture in a human home may fulfill utilitarian or aesthetic objectives, the God of Israel has no need for tables or chairs.  Rather, the "furniture" of His house was inspired with an instructive and pedagogic quality, for it served to proclaim the truth of His ongoing involvement in the lives of His people Israel.  His sustaining providence (i.e. the Table) and His illuminating spirit (i.e. the Menora), both underpinned by His guiding instruction (i.e. the Ark), were never remote or removed from those that sought (and still seek) Him.


This week, we will consider another approach, first implied by Rav Sa'adiah Gaon (10th century, Babylon) but developed and immortalized in the remarkable words of the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) in his lengthy comments to our Parasha.  We may cast his ideas in sharper relief by posing a question that ought to give pause to any serious student of the Mishkan: what could it possibly mean to assign a location in material space to an Absolute Being that, by very definition, transcends any space?  To paraphrase the Ibn Ezra, how does one circumscribe the presence of God whose "glory fills the entire cosmos" with the construction of a tangible building that is intended as His "dwelling place"?  In what sense does God "dwell" in the Mishkan? 




The Ibn Ezra, in an excerpt from a longer introductory passage in which he discusses the meaning of the Mishkan, attempts to address those questions by offering an analogy.  Although argument by analogy, as we shall see, may not be logically infallible, it may yet serve to help one understand matters that are otherwise inexplicable.  Ibn Ezra relates:


Thus says Avraham the author…We understand that the soul fills the entire body.  There are, however, locations in the human body, those that have a concentration of nerve fibers extending from the brain, that are more sensitive than other parts.  The eyes and the ears, for instance, are more sensitive than the bones or the liver, for these latter two do not feel.  The heart received the power of the soul more than any other of the body's organs and for that reason many other organs serve it…


The Ibn Ezra begins by positing that the human soul, the incorporeal and intangible life force that animates the material body, fills all parts of the body and inspires them with life.  As long as the soul remains in the body (i.e. as long as a person is alive), then the soul brings life to all of the body's organs and limbs.  Nevertheless, there are certain parts of the body that are obviously more sensitive than other parts, at least insofar as sensory perceptions are concerned.  The eyes and the ears, containing a great concentration of sensory fibers, are thus highly responsive to external stimuli, while other organs (such as the "bones and liver") remain indifferent to anything but immediate or overwhelming stimulation.  At the same time, some organs, such as the heart, are more critical than others for the continuing function of the human organism, and may therefore be said to possess a greater degree of the life force or soul.


In other words, in this first section, Ibn Ezra introduces a basic and reasonable premise: the fact that the ethereal life force or soul animates the entire physical body (for, after all, every element of a living human being is also alive) does not preclude the possibility that some of that body's elements may nevertheless be (a) more sensitive to external stimuli, or even (b) filled with a greater degree, so to speak, of that life force.  In both of these exceptional situations, it is the unique PHYSICAL qualities of those organs that constitute the source of their special status.





The Ibn Ezra continues:


Similarly, with respect to glorious God, we know that His glory fills the entire world, but there are nevertheless locations at which God's power is manifest more than other places, and this is due to two things.  The first concerns the natural makeup of the receiver.  The second concerns the degree of supernal power that rests upon the (literally "head of the") receiver.  For this reason, the location of the Holy Temple was chosen…


Here, the Ibn Ezra introduces the parallel to the above observation concerning the human body.  Just as the spiritual and utterly incorporeal soul fills the human body, so too the spirit of God, wholly and absolutely intangible and characterized by no physical qualities whatsoever, fills the material cosmos and INSPIRES THAT COSMOS WITH LIFE.  We can scarcely begin to comprehend how an intangible soul animates a physical body, the former being impervious to empirical study by definition and wholly imperceptible to those that can only fathom material things.  How much more so do we struggle to comprehend a Being that is absolute and eternal existence, and His relationship to concrete matter that can be observed, quantified and described in tangible terms. 


But if we are prepared to entertain the fantastic premise, then the remainder of the Ibn Ezra's analogy must necessarily follow.  Just as there are parts of the human body more sensitive or more alive, so too there are nodes in the physical space of the universe that are more sensitive or more alive as well.  The location of the Temple is therefore doubly special, for not only does it contain a greater expression of the Divine "life force" but it is uniquely sensitive to the reception of that life force also.  In other words, while God's wholly incorporeal glory fills the cosmos and animates it, there are special places where the EXPERIENCE of that glory is enhanced.  Such a place is the Temple, a physical location in concrete and material space that enjoys a higher degree of the Divine soul. 




The Ibn Ezra invariably employs words such as "power," "receiver," "sensitivity" and "location" in his attempts to render meaningful the matter of God's universal spiritual presence versus the Temple's particular spatial location.  But perhaps we may offer a further analogy to Ibn Ezra's, one that preserves something of his vocabulary and yet may be more comprehensible to our 21st century senses that are constantly attuned to the reception of radio, television, and cellular telephone signals.  It is as if God's glory is being broadcast throughout the cosmos, after the manner of a radio signal, but only certain physical nodes, antennas if you will, are suited for receiving the signal.  Just as a communications broadcast can be specifically directed to a particular location while all other areas outside of the broadcast region will remain unawares, so too the experience of God's presence is Divinely directed to specific points in space leaving all other areas to cope with only weaker signals.  And just as the broadcast signal, no matter how powerful, cannot be received without the right equipment (i.e. a receiver), so too unless the physical node in space is properly "constructed" to receive the Divine signal, as the Temple surely is, the overarching experience of God's presence will remain only partial at best.  The Temple is thus the heart as well as the eyes of the physical universe, the focal point to which is beamed the broadcast of God's presence as well as the most sensitive apparatus for its reception, and "for this reason, the location of the Holy Temple was chosen…" 


Of course, having introduced this further analogy, we may proceed one more step.  Even if the signal of God's glory is strong as well as directed to the right receiver, even if the receiver is naturally well-constructed and capable of reception, unless the receiver is precisely tuned to receive the signal, only frustrating static may result.  One may stand at the portals of the holy Temple, the ideal locus in physical space for the spiritual experience of the Divine, but if the mind and the heart are insensitive or numb, then God will remain woefully remote and inaccessible.  God waits for us, patiently transmitting His glory to all who would stand in awe at His house, but rare is the human being who is sensitive enough to humbly listen and to understand. 




Ibn Ezra leaves us with a final and startling thought:


One who understands the essence of his soul and the workings of his body can therefore comprehend matters of the Supernal Worlds above.  This is because the human being is like a miniature universe, the final act in God's fashioning of the cosmos.  An allusion to the matter is provided by the verse: "He began with the large and concluded with the small…" (Bereishit 44:12).


For the Ibn Ezra, there need not be any inherent incompatibility between the headstrong human being, nurtured from his birth on gross materiality and seemingly far-removed from an appreciation of the soul, and the God who is the author of the cosmos and its sustaining force.  In fact, quite the opposite.  The human being, according to Ibn Ezra's analogy, alone among all of the creations inhabiting the terrestrial plane, is uniquely constructed to perfectly parallel the Divine reality.  For God, there is the material cosmos that is animated and enlivened by His supernal presence.  For the human soul, the true repository of the personality and essence of the person, there is the concrete and coarse body that lives and breathes only by dint of the soul's constant presence.  Precisely because of our seeming bifurcation into a spiritual essence and a material body are we able to COMPLETELY relate to a God with whom we share an outline of existence. 


Of course, though, God has no body, no material qualities, and no corporeality to speak of.  He is absolute and utter Spirit, timeless and eternal, unbounded and limitless, all-powerful and all-knowing.  The universe in all of its incomprehensible vastness is not His body, even the cosmos, "heaven and earth and all that they contain," cannot serve as the corollary to the physical body that is the necessary abode of our own soul.  To ascribe ANY physicality to the Creator, even a tenuous link to an existence that is experienced in terms of matter and molecules, time and space, is anathema to Jewish tradition and utterly incompatible with our conception of God's categorical absoluteness and transcendence.  And so the analogy of the Ibn Ezra, no matter how helpful and inspiring, must in the end remain incomplete.  Let us conclude with a reference to the great sage's comments on the creation account of the human being, recounted in Bereishit Chapter 1, verse 26:


The Torah speaks the language of human beings, for the speaker (Moshe) is human as are the listeners.  No man can speak of things completely removed from his experience, whether they are far above him or else below, unless he employs language to which he can relate.  Thus, the text speaks of the "mouth of the earth" (BeMidbar 16:30), the "hand of the Yarden River" (BeMidbar 13:29), or the "top (literally "head") of the dust of the earth" (Mishle 8:26).  GOD FORBID ENTIRELY THAT GOD SHOULD HAVE ANY PHYSICAL QUALITIES!  And so the verse states "to whom can you compare Me that I might be similar?" (Yeshayahu 40:25).  But the supernal human soul, in its eternity is like God, also incorporeal and filling the body.  The human body is like a microcosm.  Blessed be God who began with the fashioning of "the large and concluded with the small…" 

Shabbat Shalom 


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