February 24, 2007 – 6 Adar 5767
Annual: Ex. 25:1 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p 485; Hertz p. 326)
Triennial: Ex. 26:31 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p 491; Hertz p. 330)
Haftarah: I Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 500; Hertz p. 336)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Summary of the Parashah
God commands Moses to direct the Israelites to contribute materials for the construction and outfitting of a mishkan – a wilderness sanctuary – which should be a symbolic dwelling place for the divine presence within the camp of the wandering Israelites. The mishkan is to be outfitted with an ark, which will hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments, certain curtained-off holy spaces, and an altar for burnt offerings. Obviously, the Torah does not provide us with graphic illustrations of these items, although there are artist’s conceptions found in Humash Etz Hayim.
Issue #1: Specifications without Illustrations
One of the challenges in reading and understanding the material in these next few chapters of the book of Exodus is visualizing the mishkan and its parts. We are presented verbally with the design specifications for the mishkan and its accessories, but (not surprisingly) the Torah presents us no visual aids to assist us in picturing what the sanctuary and its vessels might have looked like. Several books have been published in recent decades to assist our imagination, in addition to the diagrams in Etz Hayim previously noted.
Why did this problem not appear to be a source of frustration to Moses? Consider the following verses, drawn from various points within parashat Terumah.
Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:9)
Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown to you on the mountain. (Exodus 25:40)
Then set up the mishkan according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain. (Exodus 26:30)
Make it... as you were shown on the mountain; so shall they be made. (Exodus 27:8)
In light of the above verses, we are not really surprised to read the following interpretation in the Talmud:
Rabbi Yose the son of Rabbi Judah says: [The image of] an ark of fire and a table of fire and a candelabrum of fire descended from the heavens, and Moses saw [them] and made [these items] like them. (Menahot 29a)
Ordinarily, the rationalists in our midst might bristle at such a fanciful interpretation. However, the four biblical verses quoted above make it obvious that Moses had the benefit of a visual component to round out the verbal specifications of the mishkan.
Is the lack of pictures of the mishkan and its accessories a hindrance as we build new or remodel sanctuaries? Would it be better for us to have a set style required for floor plans or design of arks, cups or other items? If we were taken with the photos and models that have been built of late, should we adopt or adapt them for modern use?
Issue #2: Chronology in the Latter Portion of the Book of Exodus
The timeline of events from this point to the end of the second book of the Torah is elusive. As presented in the text, we read the commandment to the Israelites regarding the construction of the mishkan and its vessels, followed by the incident of the golden calf, later followed by the implementation of the mishkan project.
The incident of the golden calf is unsettling enough. When we consider it within the context of the letdown that followed the peak experience of revelation at Sinai, there could be a glimmer of understanding of the people Israel in the desert. We can understand that Moses, who had been the sole mediator of the divine message to the Israelites, was absent (spending an additional 40 days on Mount Sinai), and that the people lacked spiritual direction in his absence. Yet it is hard to understand how the Israelites could have felt such a pressing need for a physical representation of their contact with the divine if they were in the midst of the project of constructing the mishkan.
If you are disturbed by this contradiction, you are not alone. Rashi (1040-1105), the pre-eminent traditional commentator on the Torah, felt this problem as well. In analyzing Exodus 31:18, he says:
There is not a strict chronology in the Torah. The incident of the [golden] calf preceded the commandment of the construction of the Mishkan by many days.
Rashi did not invent the idea that the Torah sometimes departs from a strict timeline. He is quoting a principle from the Talmud:
Said R. Menasia b. Tahlifa in Rab’s name: This proves that there is no chronological order in the Torah. (Pesahim 6b)
This principle does not imply disrespect for the Torah, it simply acknowledges that the Torah was designed as a book that teaches values, not as a history book. Moreover, it does not assert that the Torah is an utter mishmash of chronology. The assumption is that the paragraphs of the Torah have internal timeline consistency, but the larger sections might not be presented in chronological order.
As we have seen above, Rashi is convinced that the directive to construct the Mishkan was not enunciated until after the golden calf episode. Others, notably Ramban (1194-1270), adhere to a strict chronological view of these chapters within the Torah. Since both views are considered legitimate, it is fair to ask: How do you view the sequence of events discussed above? As we consider the commitment of the people Israel to God, is there a difference between the two views? Does it make a difference in how we understand the ways the Israelites believed if the commandment to build the Mishkan came before or after the Golden Calf?