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The Miskan Revisited (1)

Rav Michael Hattin




As the Book of Shemot draws to a close, the account of the Mishkan is completed.  It had been initially described in the parashiyot of Teruma and Tetzave, when God first spelled out to Moshe the vessels, building elements and priestly garments to be fashioned.  The matter is now revisited in the parashiyot of VaYakhel and Pekudei, as Moshe conveys God's commands to Israel and the actual work is then executed.  The Torah begins the account of the fabrication by noting that Moshe's call for a contribution of all of the necessary materials – precious metals, rare dyes and textiles, animal hides and wood, fine oils and spices and gemstones – was munificently answered by the entire people of Israel:


The entire congregation of Israel left Moshe's presence.  Every man whose heart moved him, everyone whose spirit inspired him brought a contribution for God for the fashioning of the Tent of Meeting and all of its vessels, and for the sacred vestments…every woman wise of heart spun with her hands, and they brought the sky blue, purple, crimson and linen…the tribal princes brought the onyx stones and the gemstones for setting in the efod and the breastplate…every man and woman whose heart moved them to contribute (materials) for the fashioning of all of the things that God commanded Moshe to be wrought, the people of Israel brought as a freewill offering to God (35:20-29).


     The undertaking is thus national in scope.  No man or woman, no prince or pauper, no commoner or noble was excluded.  How could it be otherwise?  The House of God, if it is to radiate the immediate experience of His presence into the world, if it is to truly enrich our lives and charge them with purpose and meaning, cannot be an exclusive and extravagant imposition of the priesthood or else a stark and severe refuge of the insular ascetics, but rather the house of all Israel.


     During the course of the parashiyot of Teruma and Tetzave we considered the interpretation of the Seforno (15th century, Italy), who saw in the Mishkan and its vessels the analog to a house and its furnishings.  The couch and lamp stand, table and chair had their parallels in the Ark and Menora, Table and Golden Altar, and the implications of the correspondence were striking.  This time, over the course of the next couple of weeks, we will reconsider the matter from a different perspective, but in the end we may discover that our new reading complements rather then contradicts that of the Seforno.



     Recall that the Mishkan or Divine abode consists of four major elements: a sacred and curtained enclosure, a prefabricated building positioned within it, specific vessels placed within the spaces, and particular precious garments to be worn by the officiating clergy.  The entire complex, rectangular in plan and hence directional in character, is sited along an east-west axis, with access from the east.  The progression through the spaces is hierarchical and marked by real or implied portals, as the worshipper or priest moves from the camp of Israel, through the courtyard, into the building proper, and towards the serene impenetrability of the Holy of Holies.  The various vessels have a ritual utility and readily comprehensible functionality that is, however, invariably bound up with a more profound symbolism.


     At first glance, although the general purpose of the Mishkan is readily apparent, we can detect no Biblical precedents for the building or for its vessels.  There are no obvious references elsewhere in the Torah for the Ark or Table, Menora or Golden Altar, Bronze Altar or Laver, Efod or Breastplate.  Their introduction in the sections of Teruma and Tetzave seems at once original and extraordinary.  It is true that at Sinai there was sacrifice, as Moshe erected an altar at the feet of the mountain in the aftermath of the Revelation of the Decalogue (Shemot 24:1-11), and there the people swore their allegiance to God's laws.  But the only overt connections between Sinai's altar of unhewn stones and the Bronze Altar of the Tabernacle are the similar ceremonial acts and spiritual sentiments that inspire them both, rather than any tangible or empirical qualities. 


     It is also true that the Ramban detects a powerful general association between the Tabernacle and Mount Sinai, between the ongoing revelation to Moshe and to Israel in the wilderness and the climactic event of the Giving of the Torah at Chorev, for he perceptively indicates that a similar vocabulary of preparation on the one hand, and maintaining a solemn distance on the other, informs them both.  At Sinai, Israel was commanded to remain respectfully far from the mountain's perimeter while being simultaneously sensitive to God's overwhelming presence.  That singular manifestation of His presence sanctified the location in space and the moment in time, and created the necessity for the people's prior purification (Shemot 19:10-15).  For the Ramban, the Mishkan is meant to not only duplicate that experience, but to perpetuate it forever (see his introduction to Parashat Teruma).  Thus, the Tabernacle constitutes a sacred enclosure in which we may encounter God's immediacy, but entry is barred to all save those who prepare ahead of time.  From within the Tabernacle God communicates His will to Moshe, just as He did at Mount Sinai.


     Nevertheless, Ramban makes no attempt to link most of the specifics of the Mishkan with Mount Sinai, because the more intrinsic connection between the two consists in the broader idea of the God-man encounter.  Perhaps then, there is no need to uncover an obvious correspondence between, say, the Menora and what happened at Sinai (but could the lamp stand not be acting as the precious repository of the flame and fire that blazed at its summit that night?), because the Menora and its kind are Divinely-ordained VEHICLES that taken together can facilitate the experience of God.  As instruments of the service, the vessels and their building envelope are the means that allow the Sinai encounter to be relived, and that constitutes their most authentic connection to the event. 



     The one exception for the Ramban seems to be the Ark of the Testimony or Aron, for in it he detects a direct reference to God's angelically-appointed throne and hence the expression of His ongoing presence and involvement in the material world.  Through the vehicle of the Aron God speaks to Moshe and thus communicates His glorious will to Israel (Shemot 25:22), just as He revealed His holy words to the prophet from Sinai's smoking summit (Shemot 20:14-22).


     What then, might be the sources for these curious vessels, for their sacred enclosure, for the all-encompassing complex that contains them?  Considering the matter in its entirety, the Ramban's interpretation still fresh in our minds, there is at first only one single word that can perhaps guide us in our investigation, although admittedly the reference may seem at first overly tenuous.  Recall that the Ark of the Testimony, the chest-like container for the Tablets of the Decalogue, consisted of a wooden box covered inside and out with pure gold.  Like the other vessels, it was provided with four golden rings on its sides and appointed with staves of overlaid acacia wood so that it could be conveyed from place to place.  But the most unusual feature of the vessel was its thick golden top that was surmounted by the two winged figures known as "keruvim" or, to use the equally obscure translation, "cherubs."  As we saw last time, traditional sources envisioned these figures to possess an almost childlike appearance, but many other Biblical references make it abundantly clear that they were meant to represent, in the coarse material terms that humans possessed of bodies must use, angelic creatures.  These Keruvim occur in many later sources as the harbingers of the Divine Presence and hence are associated with the notion of Sovereign God's throne and His concomitant involvement in the material world (see for example Shemuel 1:4:4; 2:22:11; Yechezkel Chapters 1 and 10; Tehillim 80:2).  In similar terms, both the Ramban as well as the Seforno understood their inclusion here, and in this way they explained the special prominence that is accorded the keruvim as they dramatically alight upon the lid of the Ark of Testimony.  As the verses themselves indicate: 

The Keruvim shall have outstretched wings upwards, they shall cover the lid with their wings, and they shall face each other as they gaze towards the lid.  You shall place the lid upon the ark above, and within the ark you shall place the testimony that I will give you.  I WILL ENCOUNTER YOU THERE AND I WILL SPEAK TO YOU FROM UPON THE LID, FROM IN BETWEEN THE TWO KERUVIM THAT ARE UPON THE ARK OF THE TESTIMONY, ALL THAT I WILL COMMAND YOU TO CONVEY TO THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL (Shemot 25:20-22).




     Significantly, there is only one other passage in the entire Chumash (besides the Tabernacle narratives) that mentions the Keruvim, though admittedly it is but a fleeting reference.  Nevertheless, it may be sufficient to provide us with the antecedents for which we have been searching.  The context of that reference is a suitably charged moment, the immediate aftermath of Adam and Eve having abrogated the initial and only Divine command that He had placed upon them: "…eat the fruit of all of the trees of the garden.  But do not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die!" (Bereishit 2:16-17). 


     The two humans, partners in body and companions in crime, do not succeed in long resisting the wiles of the crafty serpent, and soon partake of the forbidden fruit.  Immediately, they experience the elation of absolute autonomy and then the shame of its wanton exercise, and unsuccessfully they attempt to hide themselves from God's presence.  The existential tension reaches its acme as God suggestively calls out "where are you?" (Bereishit 3:9), but His invitations to each of them in turn to acknowledge culpability and thus effect sincere teshuva are rebuffed.  Thus, they are expelled from Eden, lest they utilize their newly functional moral freedom to partake of the cryptic "Tree of Life" and thus achieve "immortality."  The passage relates: 

God Lord sent them forth from the Garden of Eden, to work the earth from which they had been formed.  He expelled the human, and He placed the KERUVIM east of Eden along with the blade of the whirling sword, to guard the path to the Tree of Life (Bereishit 3:23-24). 

     The above passage is, of course, inscrutable in the extreme and raises many troubling and profound questions.  But for our purposes at the present time, let us overlook those issues and instead focus upon the textual details.  Adam and Chava are banished from PARADISE and forced to extract their sustenance from the unyielding earth.  The path of return is effectively barred as the KERUVIM are placed to the EAST, where these curious creatures stand as threatening sentinels to guard the approach to the isolated TREE OF LIFE. 

     It does not require a great leap of the imagination to immediately recognize that the scheme of the expulsion from Eden closely parallels the spatial organization of the Mishkan.  In both situations, the precious object, be it the Ark of the Testimony or the Tree of Life, is set off in an at once focal and yet secluded space, with the movement towards it effectively restricted by the imposing visages of the angels.  In both cases, the primary axis of approach is from the east, for all of the filtering thresholds of the Tabernacle and of its enclosure are traversed from that direction, while the threatening keruvim with their flaming swords guard the Garden from the east.  In both episodes, it is the experience of God's immediacy that is at stake, for at Eden, Adam and Chava were driven from it while at the Tabernacle we seek it with intense longing.



     There are two other indications that reinforce this preliminary reading, one of them textual, the other exegetical.  First of all, we note that God's placing of the Keruvim east of Eden involves the verb 'ShaKhaN': "He expelled the human, and He placed (vayaShKeN) the KERUVIM east of Eden along with the blade of the whirling sword."  This is of course the very same unusual root from which 'Mishkan' or 'God's abode' is derived, reinforcing the link between the events at Eden and the later fashioning of His sanctuary.  

     Secondly, while the Torah leaves out any rational explanation of the Tree of Life, cloaking it in the very same profound obscurity that informs the remainder of the Eden narrative, later Biblical tradition drew some evocative associations.  The term occurs only four other times outside of the Garden, all of them in the Book of Mishle/Proverbs authored by Shelomo, the very same king who built the first Temple.  Admittedly, all of these other references use the term without the definite article, but the connection to our Mishkan context, especially in one of the citations, is nevertheless unmistakable: 

Do not refuse God's instruction my son, and do not reject His admonition.  For God rebukes the one whom He loves, as a father desires his son.  Happy is the man who has found wisdom, the person who has achieved understanding.  For its value is greater than silver, and its bounty exceeds pure gold.  It is more precious than pearls, and none of your possessions can compare to it.  Length of days is on its right, wealth and honor on its left.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peaceful.  IT IS A TREE OF LIFE TO THOSE WHO GRASP IT, AND THOSE WHO SUPPORT IT ARE EXULTANT (Mishle 3:11-18). 

     The above passage is an ode to wisdom, praising the value of understanding and the importance of accepting God's instruction and guidance.  Though His teaching must sometimes involve reprimand and reproach, it must be understood as similar to the constructive criticism that any loving parent must occasionally bestow upon the errant child.  Nothing is more precious than achieving self-awareness, spiritual maturity, and understanding of God, and no material possessions can match their value.  The Torah, literally God's instruction, sustains us, for it is a TREE OF LIFE for all who hold on to it.  Who can fail to see the early history of humanity spelled out in this passage, the first human beings who rejected God's loving rebuke and hence forfeited their hold on the very Tree of Life that now beckoned inaccessible from beyond the leafy portals of Eden?  Who would not now recognize the obvious implication that the Mishkan, repository of the keruv-flanked Ark of the Testimony and its sustaining instruction for living – the two tables of the Decalogue as well as the pledge of His ongoing communication to man of his will – is but a microcosm of the Garden, its golden elements an idealized representation of the potential for God's immediacy that Israel might still achieve BY HOLDING FAST TO HIS TORAH? 

     Next time, we will continue our investigation by considering some of the other building elements and vessels and their connection to the Eden account, as we then go on to ponder the deeper significance of the bond as well as its timeless message. 


Shabbat Shalom      




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