Tag Archives: Tabernacle

Commentary for Pekuei

15 Mar

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites finally finish building the Tabernacle. With this important task now completed, they are ready to set out on their journey to the Promised Land, so the last few verses of the parshah explain to us how they knew when to head out. “When the cloud was raised up from upon the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys. If the cloud did not rise up, they would not embark, until the day it rose up. For the cloud of the Lord would be on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be on it at night, before the eyes of all of the House of Israel throughout their journeys (Ex. 40:36-38).”

 

This information leads us to an interesting question: If God can make these clearly supernatural occurrences to both guide the Israelites and remind them of God’s presence among them, then why instruct them to build the Tabernacle in the first place? Why not just build some altars and do the required daily sacrifices in front of this thick and impossibly low-hanging cloud or in front of the big floating fire in the sky? Surely such clearly supernatural phenomena would do a better job of focusing the people on our omnipotent God than a bunch of man-made tents and implements would.

In this week’s parshah we are told that it is on the first day of the first month of the second year that that the Tabernacle is put together by Moses and then Aaron and his sons begin their priestly duty as God had instructed. This seems to be Moses ignoring the instructions he was given by God in Exodus 29 in which God says that Aaron and his sons are to be anointed over a seven-day period in a ceremony which includes the use of the Tabernacle for sacrifices. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Gur resolves this issue by explaining that the Torah only mentions Moses raising the Tabernacle when it is erected for permanent use. For the seven-day period before that, though, Moses had been setting the Tabernacle up every morning and then breaking it down when he was done with that day’s inauguration ceremony.

 

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai also connects these seven times that Moses erects and then breaks down the Tabernacle to the seven places that would serve the Israelites as sanctuaries for the next thirteen-hundred years: The Tabernacle itself that was used in the desert, Gilgal, Shiloh, Nov, Givon, and the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

 

Midrash Rabbah takes a slightly different approach, first citing Song of Songs 5:1 and Genesis 3:8 to show that God’s Divine Presence (signified by the cloud and the fire) initially resided on Earth, but then, starting from the sin in the Garden of Eden, it retreated up to heaven, and would retreat up to a higher level of heaven following six other instances of large-scale human sin, but was also brought back down closer to earth by seven different righteous people, the final one of whom was Moses, as is evidenced by the cloud and the fire upon the Tabernacle.

 

Both of these explanations lead us to the same basic idea: That which can be destroyed by human hands can also be rebuilt by human hands. If the actions of others have made God seem absent in the world, we can bring God back into the world through our actions. If the institutions through which we connect to God appear desolate and barren, we, through our hard work, can revive them.

 

God could have simply appeared to the Israelites as cloud or fire, but that would have led to a similar situation as happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or with the Israelites themselves when they thought Moses was gone on Mount Sinai for too long. The moment God (or God’s appointed representative) was out of sight, the people would panic and turn away from God. By having them build the Tabernacle, God teaches the Israelites that a connection with God is not something that simply falls into your lap. It is something that it takes time and effort to cultivate, as symbolized by the manmade Tabernacle surrounded by God’s Divine Presence in form of the cloud and fire. Thus only once they had put in the prerequisite time and effort did the Israelites merit a visual manifestation of God’s Divine Presence.

Advertisements

Commentary for Tetzaveh

19 Feb

This week’s parshah is the second of two consecutive parshahs that deal almost exclusively with the instructions for the building and use of the Tabernacle. A rough division between the two can be made along the lines of what we are being instructed to construct. Last week’s parshah deals with the physical structures of the Tabernacle itself, the ark, the menorah, and all of their utensils, while this week’s parshah deals with the priestly vestments as well as some instructions on what to do when all of this stuff is done.

Despite the fact that it is dealing with exact instructions and precise measurements, last week’s parshah has an almost abstract feel to it. The concepts are simple, but the instructions are so precise that they seem to beg the age-old Jewish question of “why?” which the text does not answer. This week, while the instructions are similarly precise, the text does occasionally answer our unspoken question (such as in the case of the breastplate and the Ephod, whose purposes are explained in Ex. 28:29-30), helping the instructions to feel more grounded and understandable.

Another factor contributing to this week’s parshah feeling less abstract is the subject matter. We humans can easily understand the idea that the person with the fancy job needs fancy clothes. It is an idea we already understand from our human world. Obviously we can transfer this principle to help us understand why, for example, the implements used in service to God should be made of or coated in precious metals, but there is no similar concept that will help us understand why an omnipotent God wants us to make a fancy seven-branched candelabra.

That is not to say that there aren’t still parts of the priestly vestments that make us ask, “why does this have to be done this way?” Indeed, there is almost as much commentary on the priestly vestments as there is on the specifications of the Tabernacle, and there is certainly more on either of those two subjects than there is on the second part of this week’s parshah, which deals with the instructions for initiating the priests and the Tabernacle, despite the fact that the numbers and types of animals and items used in the initiation appear no less arbitrary than the materials, colors, and measurements of the Tabernacle or the priestly vestments. This is because when it comes to ritual, the symbolism is often obvious: we eat bitter herbs at the seder to remember how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt. God rested on Shabbat, therefore we rest on Shabbat as well. When it comes to something like sacrifice, the symbolism is so clear that it really isn’t even “symbolism” anymore. We all understand the reasoning on an obvious, basic level: God wants us to show our gratefulness or atonement or devotion, so we sacrifice whatever fruits or animals God wants us to bring as a sacrifice. With ritual, we understand the basic concept on such a basic, almost physical level that we are completely willing to overlook the seeming arbitrariness of whatever the numbers happen to be.

When it comes to building things or designing special clothing, we are used to understanding why. We understand that a specific room must be certain dimensions because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to fit everything it needs to fit or that little bells will make your clothes fancier and more festive. But we don’t understand why the bells need to be shaped like pomegranates, or why a room would need a fancy candelabra that will be lit during the day when the desert sun is already providing enough light. Thus we are driven to ask questions, and until we can determine answers to those questions even the most basic, precise, detailed instructions will still feel abstract.

One of the commentators who does comment on the instructions for the initiation of the Tabernacle is VeChur LaZahav, who notes that the word “matzot” appears three times in Ex. 29:2. The first and third time it is spelled the usual way, but the second time it is spelled without the technically extraneous but usually present letter vav. VeChur LaZahav connects this to the seder, at which we use three matzot, the first and third of which stay whole while the middle is broken in half for the afikoman.

The seder is perhaps the very pinnacle of easy to understand ritual symbolism. We give a brief overview of the story, then explain why we are gathering to tell the story, then we tell the story (with added explanations), and then, one by one, we literally point to the important items on the table and ask “what is the significance of this?” before explaining it in as direct a manner as possible. This is because the purpose of the seder is to ensure the continuity of Jewish tradition not just through repeated motion but through teaching a thorough understanding of why the events being recounted are so important and why they need to be commemorated each year with special foods and a special ceremony, all done in a specific order.

The events recounted at the seder are not just the story of God redeeming the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, but also the story of the formation of Jewish peoplehood. This is the story of how a family of seventy grew into an entire nation. It is because of these experiences, culminating in God liberating us from bondage, that we emerge from Egypt as a people while the “mixed multitude” that came with us (Ex. 12:38) was merely that. The story we tell at the seder is the story Jewish peoplehood going from an abstract concept to a real solid fact. It is no longer just a common ancestry and experiences but a unique way of life that people engage in.

The initiation of the Tabernacle towards the end of this week’s parshah fulfills much the same function for Jewish religious practice that the Exodus did for Jewish peoplehood. It takes it from a set of ideas and principles into something that can be externally demonstrated. Once the Tabernacle is consecrated, we will have a central place that we can go to perform rituals so that we can show our gratefulness and devotion to God. Thus, by finishing with the instructions for the initiation of the Tabernacle and the daily duties the priests will perform in it, our parshah concludes the journey we began last week with the abstract command “They shall make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8)” and brought it into reality in the form of a place we can go to solidify our connection to God.

Commentary for Terumah

12 Feb

This week’s parshah begins with God telling Moses to collect materials from the Israelites which will be used for the building of the Tabernacle and its implements. Specifically, Moses is instructed to “speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion; from every person whose heart motivates him to you shall take My portion (Ex. 25:2).”

 

The Tabernacle was created to serve a communal purpose. It was a place where the sacrifices of all Jews would be accepted, and a place where the High Priest would pray on Yom Kippur for God to judge of all Israelites with mercy, male and female, young and old, from each and every tribe. For that reason, we would think that money and materials for its construction would be collected by tax. We learn in a few weeks that the Tabernacle’s upkeep was paid for this way, so it makes perfect sense that its construction should be paid for this way as well. After all, if everyone gets to use it, then everyone should have to help pay for it.

 

God’s instructions were very specific, though. When it comes to building the Tabernacle, “let”- don’t force- “them take for Me a portion”- they choose what it is they are giving- “from every person whose heart motivates him to you shall take My portion”- it doesn’t matter how big or small the donation or what the person giving it may have done in the past: anyone who wants to pitch in is allowed to do so.

 

The Tabernacle’s upkeep was maintained via taxes collected from everyone because maintaining something is easy. Its systems are already functioning and its institutions are already in place. All you have to do is write a quick check and pay your share. Building, on the other hand, requires dedication. It requires an investment of time and effort to determine what is needed and the best plan of action to fulfill those needs.

 

Upkeep is the maintaining of the status quo, but building is making something become more than it already is. Building is what makes a place into something special. A group of people who come together to build become a community, and through their grit and determination, they leave their mark on that place, each contributing to its specialness.

Building requires heart, and that is not something that can be demanded via levy. That is something that must come from within. “Every person whose heart motivates him” helps to build the Tabernacle, and all of those people made the Tabernacle a special place that helped serve the needs of all of the Israelites.

Commentary for Yitro

6 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. While chapter twenty deals with the commandments themselves, chapter nineteen does the important job of setting the scene in which this revelation takes place. Exodus 19:4 contains not only the famous phrase “I have borne you on the wings of eagles,” but also the much less well know and more theologically puzzling end of the verse “and I have brought you to Me.” If God is omnipresent (and, indeed, during the Passover Seder, God is often referred to as “The Omnipresent”), why did God need to “bring” the Israelites to a specific place where God was?

The obvious answer to this question seems to be that the verse is meant in a spiritual sense, not a physical one, but this doesn’t seem to hold up within the Torah. Exodus 2:23 tells us that “their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God,” which tells us that they believed in God all along. Why, then, could the revelation not take place in Egypt, or by the Red Sea, or in Rephidim or Marah or any of the other places the Israelites stopped along the way? We have the same Israelites and the same omnipresent God who they believe in, so why wait until they reach this one place for this grand revelation?

In every stop along the way, we are actually shown God’s omnipresence through a display of Divine power in some way or another. In Egypt and at the Red Sea, God’s power as the Redeemer of Israel, the Eternal Judge, and the Master of Nature are on full display. At Rephidim and at the Red Sea, God functions as our protector. At Marah and at Elim, God provides for us by giving us fresh water where there previously was none and by giving us the manna. At Sinai, though, none of these facets of our relationship with God is more prominent than any other.

The preparations that Moses instructs the Israelites to take before the revelation are performed by each individual rather than by the people as a whole, with Moses or Aaron or someone else acting as an intermediary. When God offers the Israelites the covenant, it is not the mass group of “the nation” or “the Israelites” that respond, but rather “the entire people (Ex. 19:8) and it is again “the entire people” who are recorded as having experienced the revelation in Exodus 20:15. Each individual was a part of the covenant because Sinai was a place where each individual could explore his or her own unique relationship with God.

But if all of the Israelites are individually engaged in the covenant through their own unique relationship with God, then why have a revelation at Sinai at all? Why not just let it come to everyone in his or her own time?

A few parshahs later, we run into a similar theologically problematic statement related to God’s omnipresence, when God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to “make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).” To make a long story short, the lesson from this verse is not that God needs us to build a house for God or else God will be absent from the world, but rather that we need a space where we can come together to focus to help invite God into our lives. Just like us, if left to their own devices, it probably would have taken the ancient Israelites quite a while to find the time to focus on their relationships with God and to make themselves ready to accept the covenant. At Sinai, which served as a precursor to the Tabernacle discussed in Ex. 25:8 and to our modern synagogues, the Israelites were all given a time and a place to focus on those relationships, both as a community and as individuals within that larger community.