Parshat Tetzaveh: The Secret of the Mishkan

The Secret of the Mishkan – Revelation, Law and Holiness

Parshat Tetzaveh continues the previous Parsha of Teruma in its didactic description of the Mishkan. While Teruma discusses the building and its vessels, Tetzaveh discusses the clothing of the kohanim and the consecration ceremony. However, a number of topics seem out of place. Tetzaveh begins with the commandment of lighting the Menorah, even though the building of the Menorah is described much earlier in Teruma. Furthermore, even though Truma describes all the vessels of the Mishkan there is one exception, the incense altar, which is mentioned for the first time at the end of Teruma, after the narrative of the building of the Mishkan and its vessels ended. What is the significance of these anomalies?

Sefer Shemot – Attempts to Have the Divine Presence in Our Midst

These anomalies may hold the key to the meaning of the Mishkan. One way of understanding Sefer Shemot is as a series of different attempts to have the divine presence in our midst. In the beginning of Shemot the Jewish people are slaves who are ignorant of and distant from G-d. Moses hesitantly reintroduces them to G-d, who shows Himself by freeing the Jewish people from slavery through miraculous intervention. The historical intervention culminates with the victory at the Red Sea which is described by the sages as an awesome revelation that even the prophet Ezekiel didn’t merit to see (Mikhalta Shira 3). Throughout this process the Jewish people are passive and G-d is active.

The next major event, at Mount Sinai, is a different form of revelation where G-d reveals Himself through giving the law. One of the critical subtexts throughout this narrative is the activity or passivity of the Jewish people. There are defined areas such as the mountain top where Moses can go, areas the priests can go, and zones the Jewish people can go (Shemot 19:12,22). G-d tells Moses to warn the people not to come too close because it may destroy them (19:21). In the end the Jewish people are so petrified that not only do they stay within their boundaries, but they also ask Moses to act as an intermediary instead of G-d speaking to them directly (20:21). The closeness of G-d’s presence, increases their terror and paralysis. The Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael 32) explains the Talmudic statement “G-d forced upon the Jews a mountain like a cone and said if you accept the Torah then all is fine, and if not this will be your burial place” (Shabbat 88.) as follows: the Torah and the presence of G-d was so overwhelming and crushing that the Jews had no choice but to accept the Torah; otherwise the world would immediately revert to dust and ashes. In face of the pure presence of G-d there is no freedom of choice.

Immediately after the spectacular revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah introduces Mishpatim, a series of nitty gritty details and demands of everyday justice regarding slaves, minor and major damages, personal relationships gone sour, accidents and malicious acts. These laws describe a petty trivial world that strongly contrasts with the awe-inspiring presence of G-d. Why would the Torah sully the heights of G-d’s glory and revelation with such paltry minutiae?

The direct encounter with G-d is commanding and inspiring. But there are three caveats. Direct revelation is dangerous. Revelation can only work as a one-time event, otherwise it is no longer unique and stirring. Finally the awesome experience of G-d produces paralysis and passivity. What can I possibly do or contribute in the face of G-d.

The details of the law are given as an alternative and in some ways a more effective means of reaching G-d than a majestic revelation. The presence of G-d resides precisely in observing these micro commonplace events of justice to the other, even the downtrodden and insignificant. In the world of the law man is active in administrating justice and creating sanctity, not just passively watching.

A second alternative to the revelation at Mount Sinai is the Mishkan. Whether this solution was conceived of from the beginning as the Ramban (35:1) says or whether it is viewed as a necessary corrective after the sin of the golden calf as Rashi says (31:18), the Mishkan is meant to be a continuous mini revelation that plays the role of a portable Mount Sinai in the daily life of the Jews. One can see this in the clear parallels, such as zoning of different areas at Mount Sinai (19:12, 22) and in the Mishkan (40:35), the clouds and the smoke obscuring both Mount Sinai (20:18) and the Mishkan (40:38), and the tablets of the law given at Mount Sinai and found in the Mishkan.

Ark of the CovenantHowever, the structure of the Mishkan itself also emphasizes that relying on revelation and simply basking in G-ds presence is inadequate. The holiest place in the Mishkan, where G-d “speaks”, is in between the Kruvim on top of the Ark of the Covenant (25:22). The physical stand for these kruvim, is the ark containing the broken tablets, the law. Without the observance of the nuts and bolts of the law there can be no revelation. The presence of G-d depends on the Jewish people actively keeping the covenant. It is precisely this point which the later prophets clearly articulate. G-d does not desire our sacrifices and ritual in his temple if we’re not creating a just and fair society (Isaiah 1:11-18). The revelation in and of itself is of limited value.

This is the key to understanding why the description of lighting the Menorah and building the incense altar are out of place. The daily lighting of the Menorah represents lighting up the drudgery of everyday life and observance as opposed to a one-time revelation. The incense altar is not an essential part of the Temple but its smoke is necessary to protect the priest when entering the holy sites. Both of these are not an integral part of the Mishkan but are means through which we can prepare for and shield ourselves from the presence of G-d. They are out of place, to show us that the divine revelation is something which we must earn and safeguard ourselves from. Revelation and the Mishkan are not a magical panacea. Without the proper preparation, protection and moral grounding they are downright dangerous.

rabbi-meir-eksteinRabbi Meir Ekstein Phd, a member of Beit Hillel, founded Yeshivat Amit Nachshon and Ulpanat Amit Noga in Beit Shemesh. He is also involved in other educational initiatives including an excellence program for Ethiopian immigrants, and programs encouraging the study of Talmud for women. He is a clinical psychologist in private practice has taught at various Yeshivot and Midrashot. Rabbi Ekstein is a graduate of Yeshivat HarEtzion and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He earned his BA and MA in Jewish history at Yeshiva University and his PhD in clinical psychology from the New School for Social Research.

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