“Building an Everlasting Sanctuary”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, we are told that, at long last, all the work of the Tabernacle was completed. In Exodus 39:32, the Torah states: “Vah’tay’chel kol avodat mishkan ohel mo’ed. Vah’yah’ah’soo b’nay Yisrael k’chol asher tzee’vah Hashem et Moshe, kayn ah’soo,” And all the work of the Tabernacle–the Tent of Meeting, was completed, and the Children of Israel did everything that G-d commanded Moses, so they did.

According to tradition, it took three months for the Children of Israel to complete all the necessary parts of the Tabernacle. It was on Yom Kippur that the people were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf, and G-d commanded Moses to construct the Tabernacle to achieve full atonement for that terrible sin. After Yom Kippur, Moses announced the campaign to gather the materials for the Tabernacle, and within two days the workmen began their work. Three months later the Tabernacle was completed. Tradition (Yalkut, Kings 184) maintains that it was ready by Chanukah, the 25th of Kislev, but the actual structure was not erected until more than three months later, on the first of Nissan, when it was inaugurated.

According to the Midrash (ibid.), when the skeptics of the generation saw that the Tabernacle had been completed in three months and had not been erected, they began to cry: “Moses told us to contribute to the Tabernacle so that G-d’s presence could dwell in it, and now the Tabernacle and all its parts are lying in some deserted corner! Perhaps the entire scheme was false and Moses was simply trying to lead us astray!”

The Rabbis state that it was G-d’s intention to postpone erecting the Tabernacle until the first of Nissan in order to inaugurate it on the day that our forefather Isaac was born. This would allow the joy of the new Tabernacle to meld with the happiness of the birth of Isaac. After all, it is in the merit of Isaac, who was prepared to offer himself up to G-d on Mount Moriah, that the Al-mighty’s spiritual greatness descended upon the Jewish people. Furthermore, it was hoped that just as G-d showed compassion and spared Isaac, so too will G-d have compassion on His people and forgive them for their inappropriate actions.

Our commentators point out that the phrase, “Ka’asher tzee’vah HaShem et Moshe,” as G-d commanded Moses, so the people did, appears no less than 18 times in our parasha, underscoring the genuineness with which the people built the Tabernacle, preparing each piece with a full heart and complete sincerity.

But as things generally go for the Jewish people, the erecting of the Tabernacle did not proceed very smoothly.

In Exodus 39:33, Scripture informs us, “Vah’yah’vee’oo et ha’mish’kan el Moshe,” that the people brought the Tabernacle to Moses. The text, however, describes only the delivery of Tabernacle parts, not the fully erected Tabernacle: the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its planks, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, and many, many other parts from which the Tabernacle was fabricated. The rabbis ask: Normally a craftsman designs a building, assembles the pieces together and displays a completed product. Why then did the people bring all the structural pieces to Moses, rather than the fully assembled Tabernacle? If they were concerned that Moses would not permit them to assemble the pieces, they could have asked for permission.

One Midrashic approach suggests that when the People of Israel saw that the parts of the Tabernacle were completed, they actually approached the artisans and requested them to assemble the Tabernacle. But as the artisans assembled the structure, the parts immediately came tumbling down. The people then went to the designers, to Betzalel and Ohaliav, who also attempted to erect the Tabernacle, but were not successful. The skeptics of the generation again mocked Moses, saying that the Tabernacle would never succeed, since the Divine Presence refused to dwell in it. That is when the people brought all the parts of the Tabernacle to Moses.

When Moses heard that the craftsmen and the architects were both unsuccessful in their efforts to erect the Tabernacle, he began to fret. G-d, however, told him not to worry, “I know that you, Moses, were concerned that you had not personally donated anything to the Tabernacle. That is why I made it impossible for anyone but you to erect the Tabernacle. They will now see that it all depends on you. And if you’re concerned about not having sufficient strength to erect the Tabernacle yourself, fear not, for I will help you. And even though the Tabernacle will really stand up by itself, I will write in the Torah that you erected the Tabernacle!” And so it is written (Exodus 40:17), “Vah’yah’kem Moshe et ha’mish’kan,” and Moses erected the Tabernacle!

When Moses saw that all the parts of the Tabernacle were prepared precisely the way G-d had instructed, Scripture tells us (Exodus 39:33), “Vah’y’vah’rech oh’tam Moshe,” and Moses blessed them [the people]. According to tradition, cited by Rashi, Moses said to them, “Y’hee rah’tzohn,” May the Divine Presence manifest itself in the work of your hands. He then added the verse from Psalms 90:17, “Vee’hee no’am,” May the pleasantness of the L-rd our G-d be upon us; our handiwork, establish for us; our handiwork, establish it.

Although most commentators see this blessing as a blessing upon the work of the Tabernacle, the Divrei Asher (cited in Otzar HaTorah, p. 237) sees the words, “Ma’ah’say yah’day’noo,” our handiwork, as referring not to the work of the Tabernacle, but to ordinary daily labors performed by people. It was Moses’ wish that G-d’s Presence rest not only on the peoples’ sacred activities like prayer, Torah study, and mitzvah performance, but even upon the peoples’ business and social activities!

According to the Da’at Sofrim, seeing the completed Tabernacle standing erect was one of the happiest moments of Moses’ life. It was one of the very few occasions when Moses truly rejoiced and was fulfilled with his people. He therefore blessed them with a full heart.

Our rabbis teach that G-d’s promise to allow His Divine Presence to dwell among the Jewish people was not intended for the physical structure of the Tabernacle–the wood, the stones or the precious metals. G-d’s intention was that the Divine Presence literally dwell in the very bodies of the Jewish people. G-d hoped that His presence in the Tabernacle would arouse in the hearts of people a desire for His closeness, and that the people would allow the Divine Presence to penetrate and sanctify their hearts, enabling them to be fully G-d-fearing. That is what is meant by the words “Tabernacle” and “Sanctuary,” not a physical structure, but rather the hearts of the people!

Only if the people are worthy will the sanctuary endure. That was the intention of Moses’ prayer: May it be Thy will that the Divine Presence dwell in all Your handiwork–-may the Jewish people merit to see the Sanctuary standing firm due to their worthiness, because they have earned it by sincerely embracing G-d.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month of Adar II). It is also known as Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. This Shabbat is the first of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim, in which special thematic Torah portions are read. It is also one of the very rare occasions upon which three Torah scrolls are read. In addition to the weekly parasha, Pekudei, an additional portion is read concerning the new month. A third Torah portion, concerning Shekalim, found in Exodus 30:11-16, is also read. It tells of the giving of a half shekel by all the males of Israel to the Tabernacle. To this day, Jews the world over still give three half shekels (or three half dollars), on the eve of Purim.

May you be blessed.