The Mishkan and the Aron
The following two parashiyot of Teruma and Tetzave provide the textual blueprints necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels, the preparation of the Priestly Garments, and the performance of the Inaugural as well as of the Daily service. This week we will explore the broader themes associated with this undertaking, and will then direct our focus on one of the Tabernacle's more celebrated vessels.
The Ramban, in his introduction to the Book of Shemot, relates how the construction of the Tabernacle, or Mishkan in Hebrew, represents the fulfillment of an ideal:
"The Book of Bereishit is the Book of Creation that describes the formation of the Cosmos, the fashioning of all matter, and the lives of the Patriarchs. The events of those Patriarchal lives also possess a generative quality that tends to find expression in the history of their descendents, the Jewish people. After having completed the story of this 'Creation,' the Torah begins a new book that delineates the parallels between the lives of the Patriarchs and the history of their descendents.
The uniqueness of the Book of Shemot is that it describes the first Exile in Egypt, which was explicitly foretold (to Avraham), as well as the Redemption from it. Therefore the Book begins by recounting the names of all those who descended to Egypt as well as their number. Although this information was recorded at the conclusion of the Book of Bereishit, it is here repeated to indicate that the descent of these individuals, the family of Yaacov, represented the beginning of the Egyptian Exile. This exile is not completed until the people return to their place as well as to the standing of their ancestors.
When the people went forth from Egypt, although they had left behind the House of Bondage, they were still considered to be in exile, for they were in a land not theirs lost in the wilderness. When they came to Mount Sinai and constructed the Mishkan, God again caused his presence to be among them. Only then did they return to the status of their ancestors, upon whose tents God's presence had been felt. Those forefathers were the 'Merkava' or vehicle for God's presence, and only after the Mishkan was finished were the people truly redeemed. Therefore the Book of Shemot concludes with the completion of the Mishkan and with God's presence always upon it."
The Relationship Between Bereishit and Shemot
In his brief remarks, the Ramban introduces a wealth of ideas. He suggests that on the most fundamental level, the Books of Bereishit and Shemot are intertwined; taken together, they constitute a complete unit. Whereas Bereishit describes the lives of individuals, the illustrious Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Shemot speaks of the nation of their descendents. Essentially, however, the outline of the two respective accounts is the same, for they both describe the struggle of coming to recognize God, the challenge of living life in His presence, and the triumph of reflecting that presence to the world at large.
The Exodus from Egypt, though it might be the most momentous event in the biblical history of the Jewish people, is understood by the Ramban to be only the beginning of a process and not its climactic conclusion. Redemption of the body, the release from physical slavery, is not the end of the state of Exile. In its truest sense, Exile is a spiritual state that, although frequently possessing geographic qualities, is more accurately characterized as spiritual distance and estrangement from God. To stand at Sinai and to hear the word of God, to experience the immediacy of His presence and to carry that encounter into the mundane pursuits that constitute the bulk of our lives, to be transformed by His Torah and to seek to repair the twisted and warped state of the world, these are the true hallmarks of 'Geula' or Redemption.
Sinai and the Mishkan
The singular experience of the Revelation at Sinai, seemingly unique and unrepeatable, can actually continue to reverberate through the medium of the Mishkan. This so-called 'Tent of Meeting' represents the possibility of never allowing the Sinai encounter to dissipate, for as the Ramban writes at the beginning of Parashat Teruma, the "essence of the Mishkan was the notion that God's glory manifest at Mount Sinai, could be continuously felt in a more intimate way." The Revelation at Sinai, where God had spoken to the people of Israel and revealed His Torah, could be not only remembered and commemorated as an historical moment in time, but also actually relived by feeling His ongoing presence at the Mishkan.
The purpose of life, suggests the Ramban, is to become a worthy instrument for the introduction of God's presence into the material realm. The 'Merkava,' or so-called 'Chariot,' is a profound and mystical concept; in straightforward and rational terms, however, it signifies the notion of God's presence being revealed and experienced. God is borne by the 'Merkava' into our world. This is not to be understood in the physical sense, for as an Absolute Being, He cannot be bound by material constraints. Rather, in a spiritual manner and from our frame of reference, God remains 'outside' the boundaries of the material world that we inhabit, unless His presence is somehow introduced by us.
The Patriarchs and Matriarchs as the 'Divine Chariot'
As individuals, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs had an acute God-awareness that permeated and impacted upon every fiber of their being. Often they struggled against external foes and detractors that rejected their revolutionary monotheistic and ethical outlook. Just as frequently, they grappled with internal doubts and questions, as their own faithful trust in that God was tested and refined. Always, however, they remained cognizant of their special mission and unique purpose to live Godly, upright lives characterized by a rejection of spiritual superficiality and stagnation, and by an embrace of authentic religious expression and spiritual dynamism. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs thus became the 'vehicles' or 'instruments' or 'means' that conveyed the reality of God into the world. By attaching themselves to God, He became associated with them and His presence was manifest upon their 'tents.' This is to say that their dwellings, the core of their physical and material existence in this world, was informed and transformed by their encounter with God, and that this was manifest to all sensitive people who came into contact with them.
In parallel fashion, the people of Israel represent the same mission on a national level, for they too must strive to introduce the world to the God of spiritual values, of ethics and morality, and of ultimate meaning. Like their ancestors, they experience exile, physical redemption, and Divine revelation. Like their ancestors, they have the ability and the opportunity to perpetuate that encounter with God by allowing Him to 'dwell' among them.
The word 'Mishkan,' popularly translated as 'Tabernacle,' is often understood to signify a temporary, tent-like structure, which in fact it was. It would be more accurate, however, to render 'Mishkan' as the 'place of dwelling' for the root 'ShaKaN' means to inhabit or to dwell. The implication of the 'Mishkan' is that it is 'the place where God dwells.' Of course, God is incorporeal and cannot occupy physical space, so the term is superficially misleading. What it actually signifies is the 'place where God's presence can be experienced,' for although His presence is universal and boundless, the experience of that presence is limited, being a direct function of our efforts.
To return to the Patriarchal model, God could be felt in their 'tents' because they lived their lives in His presence and were always cognizant of his Being. This cognition was not only or even primarily intellectual but rather existential. Simply put, God was the central element in their lives. Their tents therefore became the fertile grounds for the ENCOUNTER between them and God, as His presence permeated every aspect of their activity and conduct. In an analogous manner, the Mishkan is the nation's opportunity to encounter God, much as they felt His presence at Sinai. It is also a tent or dwelling for His presence, which is to say the appropriate venue for establishing a connection with Him. It is not surprising that the synonymous term in the Torah for the Mishkan is 'Ohel Moed' or the 'Tent of Meeting' for it is there that human beings have the occasion to relate directly to their Creator.
The Aron as the 'Chariot'
The 'Merkava' of which the Ramban speaks, the 'Chariot' that describes the introduction of God's presence into the world and that was manifest by the lives of the Patriarchs, is represented in the Mishkan by the Aron or Ark. This vessel was the most important of those contained in the Mishkan, and in outward appearance resembled a gilded chest surmounted by two golden 'cherubs,' and flanked by long staves utilized for its transport. In it were kept the Twin Tablets upon which God had engraved His Ten Principles. The Ramban writes that "the major goal of the Mishkan is to provide a location for the repose of God's presence, which is the Aron. As the verse states 'I will meet with you there, and speak to you from upon the Kaporet (the top cover of the Aron), from between the cherubs that are upon the Aron of the Testimony, concerning all of the commandments that you must convey to Bnei Yisrael' (Shemot 25:22). Therefore, the construction of the Aron is spelled out first, for it is most important."
Further on, he states that "the Kaporet and its cherubs are an integral part of the Aron and are placed upon it. Inside the Aron are to be placed the Two Tablets of Testimony, in order that it serve as My Throne of Glory. There I will meet with you and speak to you from upon the Kaporet from between the two cherubs. The Aron is therefore similar to the 'Merkava' that was seen by Yechezkel (Ezekiel) the prophet, as he records 'these were the beings that I saw under the God of Israel at the River Kevar, and I realized that they were cherubs... (Yechezkel 10:20). Therefore, God is referred to as the 'One who is enthroned upon the cherubs' (Shemuel 1:4:4). The Torah describes them as being fashioned with wings outstretched, for they are the 'Merkava' who bear His glory...."
In other words, the Aron is an expression of the possibility of introducing God's presence into the world. The cherubs are certainly not representational, for the Torah explicitly outlaws idolatry as a most heinous offense. Additionally, there are two of these creatures placed upon the Aron, and they could therefore not be an image of the God Who is absolutely One. Rather, suggests the Ramban, the cherubs are a human attempt (according to Divine behest) to portray the spiritual 'angelic' beings associated with God's presence.
In the mind's eye of the Prophet Yechezkel, who lived at the end of the First Temple period, the throne-like 'Chariot' that bears His glory suggests God's presence among the people. On the eve of the destruction of the First Temple, as the people of Jerusalem stray from His Torah and succumb to spiritual decay and moral turpitude, Yechezkel sees the Divine presence withdraw from the city. God is no longer welcome in their midst, and so the Merkava carries the experience of His glory back to the heavens. The physical Aron may still be lodged in the Holy of Holies, but the Temple has become a lifeless shell.
Thus, the Aron symbolizes our desire to bring God into our lives. This is done through the medium of the Torah and the performance of the mitzvot. Therefore, the Aron only contains one object: the Tablets that spell out the unique obligations of the people of Israel, for these mitzvot are the fulcrum around which the relationship between God and humanity pivots. God communicates to Moshe from 'between the cherubs' for the Aron is the symbol of his throne, and that throne speaks of His ongoing presence and involvement in the world. That throne, in turn, is founded upon the bedrock of the Tablets, for the prescriptions upon them are the only means of bridging the chasm between heaven and earth. Significantly and most uniquely among all of the peoples of antiquity, the most holy object in the most holy area of the national shrine contains not a molten image of a god, but a timeless and intangible Text that is the antithesis of corporeality.
This approach explains a curious feature of the Aron that made it unique among the other vessels of the Mishkan. "In the rings of the Aron shall the staves remain, they are not to be removed." All of the other vessels, such as the Table, the Menora, and the Altars, had staves that were inserted when the Mishkan journeyed, and were removed when it was set up at its new temporary location. For all of the other vessels, therefore, the staves were nothing more than a practical and essential means of allowing transport. In the case of the Aron, however, the staves must have had another additional function, for they remained in the Aron even when it was at rest. It is probable that the injunction to maintain the position of the staves was an emphatic and concrete expression of the idea that the people of Israel, the human bearers of the Aron, have the special purpose of 'bringing God's presence into the world.' The Aron may indeed be the expression of God's desire to be involved in our lives, of His glorious throne that suggests the dimension of an immediate and intimate relationship. But unless human beings bear that Aron, unless the staves are carried by the people of Israel into the world, God remains a distant and detached Reality. The staves must remain in the Aron always, to teach that the cherubic beings with wings outstretched are nothing more than lifeless symbols that cannot introduce God's presence into our lives. That dynamic mission, indicated by the staves that are lifted by human beings, is our role alone.