Four thousand pounds of gold, fifteen thousand pounds of silver, ten thousand pounds of bronze — the opening passage of Parashat Pekudei, dazzles us with the tremendous material resources that were invested in the construction of the tabernacle. Clearly the grandeur of this edifice is intended to make a deep impression upon us. A careful read of Pekudei and the preceding chapters of the end of Exodus demonstrate that beyond the dramatic effect of the massive amounts of precious metals, the careful and meticulous placement of these materials has tremendous significance as well.
When we read the words bronze, silver and gold, it is hard not to think of the olympics. Just as the olympic medals rank the athletic performance of those on the winner’s podium, so too the placement of these metals in the mishkan indicate a hierarchy of sanctity in its precincts. Their careful arrangement uses our conventional associations of monetary value to instruct us in the varying levels of sanctity in the mishkan. At the same time, perhaps we can find in the ordering of these commodities a message that breaks down our very notions of what is valuable and worthy.
The Hierarchy of the Tabernacle
The tabernacle can be subdivided into two main areas — its outer courtyard and the tent that is enclosed by the courtyard. The tent itself is subdivided again into two. Its innermost area is called the holy of holies and the area leading to it merely, “the holy.” As one moves from the outer precincts of the tabernacle toward the holy of holies the sanctity of the holy space increases. In parallel, the value of the metals used in each area likewise increases. In the outer courtyard we find the washbasin and the altar. Both of these are made of the least precious metal, bronze.
On the other hand, the furniture of the tent itself, the table, the candelabra, and the ark, are all made of gold. The pillars of the outer courtyard have bronze bases and pillars themselves have no metal coating. The pillars of the entrance to the tabernacle itself also have bronze bases, but the pillars themselves are now gold covered. The pillars of the the veil separating the holy of holies from the rest of the tent, the parochet, are also gold plated, but instead of bronze bases theirs are made of silver. It is clear that the conventional value of these precious metals is used to indicate the progressive significance of the divisions of the tabernacle as one proceeds towards its inner core. Yet, it may be that the very notion of what is valuable is ironically undermined by the very same structure.
The innermost point of the tabernacle lies between the two cherubs that stand over the ark. My teacher, Rabbi David Bigman, in his book The Fire and the Cloud, compares the presence of cherubs in other ancient near eastern temples with their use in the tabernacle. In the ancient temples, cherubs were placed around the main idol of the Temple. Anyone living at that time, when seeing cherubs, would expect to see an icon of a deity in between them. However in between the two cherubs in the tabernacle, we find nothing. One function of the cherubs in the mishkan is to emphasize the non-physical, abstract, and transcendent nature of the God of Israel.
Picking up on Rabbi Bigman’s insight, I would like to suggest that the use of cherubs in the mishkan may do more than undermine ancient expectations regarding the nature of God. They may also overturn assumptions about value that persist until today. The whole aesthetic experience of the tabernacle is based upon our regard for the monetary worth of precious metals. We move from bronze to silver to gold, understanding a corresponding ascendance in religious sanctity. And yet when we arrive at the very focal point of the structure, we find nothing but empty space.
In between the two cherubs of pure gold, there isn’t a diamond, or emerald, or any other gem surpassing the monetary worth of what preceded. It is the immaterial voice of God that emanates from that space. The tabernacle’s use of precious metals, leads us to understand that at its very heart we will find its most valuable treasure. That treasure has no material manifestation.
It may be possible generalize the message of the tabernacle into the larger vistas of our lives. As creatures that are dependent upon material resources for our survival, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the existence of obsession over the accumulation of material wealth throughout our history. It is a truism, that this greed distracts us from things that are much more important like friendship, integrity, decency and love. The Ramchal in his introduction to Mesilat Yesharim stressed that some truisms, despite their simplicity, bear repeating. The very center of the Torah’s religious edifice drives home for us the message that there are things in this world much more valuable than silver and gold.
Rabbi Ross Singer received rabbinic ordination from the chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen and the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa, Rabbi David Bigman. Rabbi Singer served as Rabbi of Shaarey Tefilah Synagogue in Vancouver Canada from 1996-2004 and Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore from 2006-2010. Making Aliya with his wife and four children in 2010, Rabbi Singer currently works in Public relations at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and has completed studies towards becoming a tour guide at Yad Ben Tzvi in Jerusalem.
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