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Terumah | Meeting God in the Mishkan

Rav Alex Israel


Our parasha inaugurates an entire section of the Torah which is devoted to the mishkan - the Tabernacle.  For the coming weeks the Torah leaves the sweeping narrative of the dramatic Exodus and the spectacle of the revelation at Sinai.  Our attention turns instead to the field of architecture.  Precise measurements, design details and descriptions of raw materials - metals, woods, animal skins, color dyes - are to take the center stage.  The text describes it all with painstaking detail.


The Order of the Parasha - The Structure of the Mishkan


The coherent architecture of the mishkan is apparent in the very ordering of  topics within the parasha.  The placing of each item and detail in the Biblical text parallels the structure of the mishkan itself.  Here is a rough plan of the structure of parashat Teruma.  It will mirror the structures - or floorplan - of the mishkan.



25:1-9          The call to donate materials.  The purpose of the mishkan


25:10-22        The Ark


25:23-25:29     The Table of the showbread

25:31-40        The menora


26:1-14         The cloth coverings of the mishkan

26:15-30        The wood structure of the mishkan

26::31-37       The parokhet - the curtain dividing the Holy from the Holy of Holies


27:1-8          The sacrificial altar


27:9-19         The boundary of the outer courtyard (the posts and cloth "walls")


As is evident from the outline above, the ordering of the details in these chapters is systematic.  The description of the mishkan works from inside outwards.  It begins by describing the inner area known as the holy of holies and it moves outwards to detail the outer chamber and courtyard.  For each "area" or "zone" of the mishkan, first the "kelim" - vessels or ritual articles - are described, followed by the construction details of the environment in which they reside.


Maybe one short word of introduction would be in place here for the uninitiated.  The mishkan or tabernacle contains three basic areas or zones: the courtyard, the Holy, and the Holy of Holies.  The division of these three zones represents a progression from the profane to the sacred in incremental ascending scales of holiness.  The outer area is the courtyard which is unroofed.  It is here that the main sacrificial altar stands and all Israelites who are in a state of ritual purity can gain admission.  Within the courtyard is a covered structure - an area with restricted entry - which contains two sections.  First is the Holy to which regular Israelites could not enter, only priests and levites.  Within this area was an inner chamber called the Holy of Holies.  Only the High Priest would enter this chamber, on the holiest day of the year - Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).


The incremental levels of holiness are reflected also by the materials used.  In the Holy of Holies and the Holy, the ritual objects are made from gold.  The boards are plated with gold.  The coverings are ornate, intricate, decorative woven cloths.  But in the outer courtyard, the altar is constructed from bronze, and surrounded by plain wood posts in bronze sockets, supporting simple white twisted linen divisions.  The washing laver in the courtyard is also bronze.




So far, we have reviewed the parasha, emphasizing the logical ordering of the text, ordering the details of construction of the tabernacle as a mirror image of its physical layout.


It would seem clear from our description above, that the ark - the Aron - stands at the pinnacle of the mishkan.  It is placed in the Holy of Holies, it is the first of the tabernacle "furniture" to be described.  It would seem to stand at the head of the mishkan.  But this is not where its special nature begins or ends.  Let us examine the Aron, thinking about its imagery and symbolism, in a quest to discover the true significance of this object.


God had spoken with Israel face to face, delivering to them the Ten Commandments ... and Israel had accepted the performance of the commands that He would issue (via Moses).  A covenant had been cut on this very act.  Now they are His nation and He is to them as a God as He had defined from the start (19:5), "and you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (19:6).


     It is befitting a holy nation that there be within their midst a sanctuary so that God's presence may dwell among them.  Hence He commanded - as the very first command - that there be a mishkan, a house sacred to His name where He could speak with Moses and command the Children of Israel.


The central focus of the mishkan - the place of God's presence - is the Aron as it states, 'There will I meet you, and I will speak with you - from above the kaporet ... (all that I will command you concerning the  Children of Israel) (25:21).'  This is the reason that the Ark is mentioned at the top of the list, for it is the highest in level.  ... but in parashat Vayakhel (ch. 35) when the structure and coverings of the mishkan precede the description of the Ark, that is because it was these items that had to be crafted earliest" (Nachmanides to 25:1).


Let us examine this passage from the Ramban (Nachmanides).  The Ramban asks as to the aim and purpose of the mishkan and the Ark within it.  He provides a straightforward answer.  The mishkan ensures that God will dwell amongst his people Israel.  There is a historic-covenantal background to all this, however.  In the aftermath of the monumental covenant between God and the nation of Israel, God commands that a place be established where He can have ongoing contact with His nation as an expression of the bond between them.


But a building is not enough.  The covenant must be given a living expression.  The medium through which God's presence is realized is the word of God.  God's presence is felt, His desire for contact and relationship is expressed by the ongoing communication between Himself and Moses, the representative of the nation.  God's commands form the basis of the God-man conversation, and this  command, this conversation is to occur at the hub of the mishkan, at the ark, in the Holy of Holies.  It is at this precise locus that the covenant is given its fulfillment. 


But why the ark?  What is it about the ark which makes this item the focal point of the mishkan - the tabernacle?  Why is the ark placed at the head of the inventory of vessels of the sanctuary?




They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.  Overlay it with pure gold - overlay it inside and out ... And deposit in the ark [the tablets of] the pact (edut) which I will give you.  You shall make a cover (kaporet) of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide.  Make two cherubim of gold - make them of hammered work - at the two ends of the kaporet ... The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings ... Place the kaporet-cover on top of the Ark, after placing inside the Ark, the pact that I will give you.  There will I meet you, and I will speak with you - from above the kaporet, between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the pact - all that I will command you concerning the  Children of Israel (25:10-21).


The very content of the ark belies its function.  It is a storage box - "as with a great treasure which is deposited with a person for safekeeping" (Ibn Ezra 25:16).  The "treasure" inside the box, is the two tablets of stone.  These tablets are the definitive symbol of the covenant.  Indeed, the text here describes the tablets by a simple, but powerful title.  They are called "EDUT" - testimony.  They testify to the pact between God and the nation. 


It is at this "Ark of the Covenant" that God will speak to Moses.  "There will I meet you, and I will speak with you."  The location is described with great precision - between the cherubim, above the kaporet, on top of the covenantal ark - a meeting place is set where God will meet man, confronting, commanding, and continuing the covenantal relationship.


Indeed, the ark as an object is seen as the very seat of God's presence. 


And when the Ark traveled, Moses proclaimed:

"Arise God, scatter your enemies, may your foes flee before you!"

And when it halted, he would say,

"Return, O Lord, to the Israel's myriad thousands" (Bamidbar 10:35, 36)


When the ark moves, God moves.  When the ark rests, God rests.




A clear proof for this theory of the Ramban - that communication is the expression of the covenant and God's closeness to the nation - can be demonstrated from the great betrayal of the covenant.  This occurred in the weeks of crisis and insecurity that followed the sin of the golden calf.  There we read:


Now Moses took the Tent and pitched it OUTSIDE the camp, at some distance from the camp.  It was called the tent of meeting, and whoever sought the Lord would go to the tent of meeting that was outside the camp...  And when Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance to the tent while He spoke with Moses...  The Lord would speak to Moses face to face ... (33:7-11).


At this stage there is, as yet, no sanctuary and no ark.  However, the passage is clear.  The people have betrayed God.  They have reneged on their exclusive commitment to God and have thereby brought the pact into question.  The relationship itself between God and Israel is under review.  How do we proceed? How can the damage be repaired? In this atmosphere, the word of God cannot be heard from within the camp.  God's presence will not rest in the midst of the camp which has broken the pact.  God's presence, His word is the fulfillment of the covenant.  The Tent, the communication, leaves the camp and moves outside.


Maybe then, the historic significance of the establishment of the mishkan in the epicenter of the camp, takes on new meaning.  After a period of estrangement, the erection of the mishkan means that God will speak from WITHIN the camp.  "And they will make for me a sanctuary, and I will DWELL IN THEIR MIDST" (25:8).  The mishkan signifies covenant, communication and the divine presence.  All of this is embodied in the holy Ark.  It is the Ark which contains the symbol of the pact.  It is the ark which facilitates communication with God.  The ark transforms the mishkan, or sanctuary, into a Tent of Meeting, with the Divine presence itself.




Nachmanides, however, takes this theory to new heights.  He suggests an imagery for the mishkan which propels the mishkan into a new league.


The essence ("sod") of the mishkan is thus: The Divine presence that rested upon Mt. Sinai, will now rest in the mishkan in a more discreet form ... the presence of God that appeared at Mt. Sinai was with Israel for eternity in the form of the mishkan and when Moses entered (the mishkan) he received the selfsame Divine voice (or word) that had spoken to him at Mt. Sinai (commentary to 25:1).


Nachmanides proceeds to demonstrate a series of parallels between the mishkan and the revelation experience at Mt. Sinai.


At Sinai: "The CLOUD covered the mountain, and GOD'S PRESENCE rested upon Mt. Sinai" (24:16).


The mishkan: "The CLOUD covered the tent of meeting, and GOD'S PRESENCE filled the mishkan."


At Sinai: "From the heavens he let you HEAR his VOICE" (Devarim 4:36).


The mishkan: "And he HEARD the VOICE ... from between the keruvim" (Bamidbar 7:89).


The Ramban even identifies the gold color of the Ark with the great fire that was visible at the peak of Mt. Sinai!  And we can add other examples of our own.  One relates to Moses' restricted entry to the mishkan, in the same way, and with the same phraseology that was used concerning his restricted ascent to Mt. Sinai.


And Moses ascended the mountain ... and GOD'S PRESENCE rested upon Mt. Sinai, and the CLOUD enveloped it for six days, AND HE CALLED TO MOSES on the seventh day from the cloud ... and Moses entered the cloud and ascended the mountain (24:15-18).


The CLOUD covered the tent of meeting, and GOD'S PRESENCE filled the mishkan.  And Moses could not enter the tent of meeting for the cloud rested upon it, and the presence of God filled the mishkan ... AND GOD CALLED TO HIM (40:34-5 and Vayikra 1:1).


In both cases, God's presence and its outer manifestation - the cloud - envelop a particular place, so that Moses cannot enter.  He will enter only when invited.


What does this Mt. Sinai-mishkan connection signify?  What does the Mt. Sinai experience have in common with the mishkan?  The miraculous, supernatural event of the revelation at Sinai was impressive, overwhelming, but where does that power lead?  Where does it find a sense of permanence? - In the mishkan.  The mishkan is the continuation of Mt. Sinai.  It takes the frightening spectacle and brings it into the daily routine.  The mishkan perpetuates the Sinai experience.


Here, two things are critical: the intense presence of God, and the voice of God.  The presence of God is His closeness.  The word "mishkan" comes from the root SHaKHaN - to dwell, or live.  God now lives in the midst of the Children of Israel.  To what purpose?  To continue the transmission of the life-giving Torah.  Hence, the mishkan serves the same function, in miniature, as the Sinai experience.




Thus far, we have described the ark as the centerpiece of the mishkan.  The ark is seen as the "seat" of the divine presence.  It represents God Himself.  It is His mouthpiece.  It also represents Israel's covenant and its living connection with God.  As for the rest of the mishkan, the entire structure revolves around, and is secondary to the Ark.


But this is not the only possible order of priorities within the sanctuary.  Let us remember that during the entire Second Temple there was no ark!  (It was stored in a secret location to prevent its falling into enemy hands.  See Mishna Yoma 5:2 and Shekalim 6:1,2.)  If we follow our description thus far, how can a temple exist in the absence of an Ark?


This is Maimonides' definition of the command to build a sanctuary:


It is a positive command to make a house for God, facilitating the sacrificial service, and (the nation) celebrate there three times a year, as it states (Shemot 25:1) "You shall make for me a sanctuary." The Torah describes the mishkan that Moses made, but that structure was temporary ... And one makes sacred vessels for the sanctuary: A sacrificial altar ... its ramp ... a washing laver ... an altar for incense, a menora, a table (Laws of the Temple chap. 1).


Where is the Ark?


Maimonides barely makes mention of the ark, not in his description of the basic function of the Temple, nor in the subsequent detail.  In Maimonides' perspective, the Temple, or sanctuary has a different focal point.  The center of the Temple is the altar [1].  Why?  Because according to Maimonides, the central function of the sanctuary is our service to God.  We serve God by bringing sacrifices upon the altar.  That is what our role is in the sanctuary, and it is within this service that we find meaning.  The altar symbolizes Man's service.  It is the medium by which man approaches God.




At this point, we can already define two basic approaches to the mishkan.  One view sees the Ark at the center; the other puts the altar at the center.  This difference of opinion might seem trivial at first glance, but in truth, the philosophical foundations of each approach are vastly different.


Putting the ark at the center means that the primary function of the sanctuary is the creation of a seat for the Shekhina - God's presence.  "Make for Me a sanctuary - so that I will rest my presence in your midst" (25:8).  We desire God's close presence.  That is the objective [2].


But putting the altar at the center reverses the direction completely.  With the altar at the center I focus upon what I might do for God.  I see myself as His servant.  The mishkan is the place which allows me to serve God in the ultimate way.  Now the aim is not so much God descending to earth, but mankind ascending to Him.  The mishkan is not what God can give me, but rather, what I can do for Him! 


So, a simple question of priority within the ritual vessels of the mishkan leads to two different philosophies as to how to build a relationship with God.  This week, when we consider the mishkan, we might well ponder the path that leads to closeness with God.  Does He make the first move, or do we?


Shabbat Shalom.






[1] There were times in which the Ark and the altar were in totally different locations!  (See the mishna in Zevachim and Rambam Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 1:2.)  This was from the time of the destruction of Shiloh until the construction of Solomon's Temple.  The ark moved around the lands of the Pelishtim, to Beit Shemesh, to Kiryat Yearim, to Beit Oved Edom, to Jerusalem.  (See Samuel 1 ch. 5-6, II ch. 6.  At the same time the altar was in Nov and Givon.


[2] In a sense, these two views are representative of two books of the Torah.  The book of Shemot is the story of a nation in exile, who receive God's law, who join God's covenant, and desire to have God's presence among them.  The desire is for God to "descend" to the people.  That is the meaning of the revelation at Sinai, the construction of the mishkan, and the entire tension which surrounds the crisis of the golden calf (see 33:4-6, 15-16, 34:6-10) and that is the point on which the book ends.  In this book, the Ark of God is central.  But in the book of Leviticus, the primary stage is taken by the sacrifices, the korbanot, which are man's vehicle of reaching up to God.  In fact, the revelation of God's presence in Sefer Vayikra transpires upon the altar rather than at the Aron.  See Leviticus/Vayikra 9:22-24.


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