“The Museum within the Tabernacle”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, G-d tells Moses to speak to the people of Israel and instruct them to prepare for the building of the Mishkan–the Tabernacle. Every man whose heart is moved should contribute the materials that are needed for the Mishkan.

The people’s contributions are to consist of gold, silver, copper, colored wools of turquoise, purple and scarlet, fine linen, goats’ hair, lamb skins dyed red, tachash skins, acacia wood, oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and aromatic incense, shoham stones and stones for the settings of the Ephod and the breastplate. In Exodus 25:9 the Torah states “V’ah’soo lee mihk’dash, v’shah’chan’tee b’toh’cham,” They shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. Whatever I [G-d] show you, that’s what you should do.

The Torah then proceeds to describe in detail the plans for building the Mishkan and its furnishings: the Holy Ark that contained the Torah and tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Table of the Showbread, the seven-branched Menorah, the coverings for the Tabernacle, the planks of acacia wood for the frame of the Tabernacle, the curtains that divided the Holy area of the Tabernacle from the Holy of Holies, the doorway to the Tabernacle, and the earthen Altar. The portion then concludes with a description of the courtyard and the curtains that surround the courtyard.

Despite the comprehensiveness, the details that are enumerated in Parashat Terumah are hardly complete. In fact, they continue for four more parshiyot, Tetzaveh, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel and Pekudei, the very conclusion of the Book of Exodus.

The Talmud tells us that there were three levels of sanctity in the Tabernacle. The least sanctified area was the courtyard that surrounded the Tabernacle where the people gathered for festivals and sacrifice. The second level of sanctity was found in the front two-thirds of the Tabernacle, known as the “Holy” area that housed the Menorah, the Table of Showbread and the Golden Altar for incense sacrifice. The most holy area, known as the “Kodesh Ha’koh’dah’shim,” the Holy of Holies, was the rear chamber of the Tabernacle, separated from the front by a curtain, the parochet. It was in the Holy of Holies that the Holy Ark containing the Torah and the tablets rested.

Despite the extraordinary holiness of the Kodesh Ha’koh’dah’shim, the Holy of Holies served in a sense as a “museum” for the Jewish people. It was a rather strange museum, since no one but the High Priest was allowed to visit the chamber. The articles that were displayed in the museum are not mentioned anywhere in the texts of the five parshiyot that extensively describe the Tabernacle. Instead, they are mentioned in various other parts of the Torah.

And so we are told in Exodus 16:32-33 that there was a bowl in the Tabernacle that contained a sample of the manna that came down from heaven. In Exodus 30:31, the ancient Israelites are instructed to keep a vessel for future generations that is to contain the Oil of Anointment. Numbers 17:25 records that Aaron’s staff that blossomed was stored inside the Holy of Holies as well. The Midrash, cited in Eisenstein’s Otzer Midrashim, adds that the High Priest’s clothes and the clothes of the priest who was anointed for war were also stored there. The Talmud, in Kree’toot 5b, says that in addition to the manna, the oil, and the staff, there was a box that contained the gifts from the Philistines that was sent along with the Holy Ark when it was returned to Israel (Samuel I, chapter 6).

As has been previously explained (see Terumah 5760-2000 and 5763-2003), the Mishkan is often understood to symbolize the Jewish home. The Table of the Showbread represents the material endowments of the home. The Candelabra represents education (specifically Torah), the Golden Altar represents the offering of our material endowments and our intelligence to G-d to bring a sweet savor into our home. The central furnishing of our home, however, is the Ark that contains the Torah that is to be with us wherever we go.

What then is the purpose of this little “museum” that contains the sample of the manna, the Oil of Anointment, and the staff of Aaron that brought forth buds? Perhaps the Torah wishes to symbolically teach us that every home needs to be concerned with its “manna.” Each family needs to determine how it will support itself, where will it obtain its economic sustenance and its ability to put food on the table. The answer is that, like manna, economic support is ultimately a gift from G-d! Additionally, we are taught that a sense of sanctity must pervade the home. Symbolically, everything needs to be sprinkled with “virtual sacred oil,” whether it be books that we read or a birthday cake at our child’s party. And finally, we are taught that our homes must always be a place where people can look for the “staff” of guidance and leadership.

Perhaps that is why the midrashim add other elements that are not in the Torah–the priestly garments and the Philistine chest of gifts. The clothes of the High Priest suggest that the inhabitants of the home must be “priestly” in their dress, their thoughts, and their actions, and that when going out to do “battle” in a hostile environment they are to wear their special, sacred uniforms representing G-d. If we do so, if we act as if we are priests, then just as the Philistines sent the ancient Israelites boxes full of valuable gifts, we too will be showered with gifts and accolades from our neighbors, even from our would-be enemies who have been transformed into friends.

This is the Tabernacle that we are to build. It is a model for all to see, a museum for all to visit, a lesson from which all may learn.

May you be blessed.