“The Delicate Balance”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, begins a series of four and a half parashiot that deal extensively with erecting the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, that accompanied the Israelites during their forty year trek in the wilderness. These parashiot are known for their many repetitions and excruciating detail. They are, consequently, often regarded as rather dull and tedious, compared to the vibrant narratives and insightful legal sections of much of the rest of the Torah.

In truth, however, the architectural specifications of the Mishkan and the various furnishings constitute one of the richest parts of the Torah with respect to life messages that are conveyed by the various aspects and ideas of the Tabernacle.

An especially rich source of elucidation of these esoteric portions are the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In his commentary on the Pentateuch, Rav Hirsch offers extensive and insightful interpretations of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. The great German rabbi finds a wealth of symbolism even in the smallest details of the Tabernacle, such as the threads that are used to weave the curtains that consist of varied colors. Rabbi Hirsch describes the T’chay’let, the sky-blue thread, as representing the spiritual, heavenly and ethereal aspects of life. In Argaman, purple color, he sees royalty and kingship. In To’la’at Shani, the scarlet wool that is colored with the blood of a worm, Rav Hirsch finds the representation of animal life, and in Shesh, linen or flax, it is the vegetable world that is represented. Zahav, gold, symbolizes the mineral world, specifically the purest mineral, requiring no refining. In Kesef, silver, Rav Hirsch again finds the mineral world represented. In this case, however, it is a mineral that has potential to be purified. Shitim, the acacia wood that is used for the columns of the Tabernacle, exemplifies growth. The Shulchan, the table of the Showbread, that holds twelve matzah-like loaves, connotes Israel’s material endowments, whereas the Menorah, the seven branched candelabra, represents the people’s intellectual endowments.

Rabbi Hirsch makes an exceedingly perspicacious observation when he describes the function of the curtain known as the Parochet. He notes that the section of the Tabernacle housing the Holy Ark, known as the Holy of Holies, is separated by the Parochet from the rest of the Tabernacle that houses the Golden Altar, the Menorah and the Table of the Showbread. The fact that Israel’s Table and Light, which represent the nation’s material well-being and the people’s intellectual spiritual development, stand under the special protection of G-d by being adjacent to the Holy of Holies is an essential message to the Jewish people.

Explains Rav Hirsch:

When Israel derives and bases its intellectual development (the Lamp) and its material welfare (the Table of the Showbread) from and on the Torah, and uses both only in furthering the ideals taught by the Torah, then, and only then, does Israel’s spiritual and material welfare also partake of the special protection of G-d’s provision.

Rav Hirsch maintains that the Parochet is stationed between the Holy and the Holy of Holies because of the danger that prosperity might become of primary importance or that the intellectual “advance” may be used to modify or reform the Torah. If Israel departs from the centrality, or no longer recognizes the centrality of Torah, the Parochet curtain will protect the Torah until a new generation comes to rekindle the light of the Torah.

Unfortunately, we have seen in the very recent past, how Jews and others have turned material endowment into the central aspect of their lives and utilized their intellectual prowess to abandon G-d rather than to draw closer to the Al-mighty. Hopefully, we have not strayed so far that a “Parochet” will be needed to shield the Torah for an entire generation until our people once again recognize the Torah as the central instrument to guide all their decisions.

Far from looking upon the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, as something alien and primitive, with no practical meaning for us today, we need to look upon the Mishkan as a source of extraordinary wisdom that has relevance for time eternal. If we see it as such, then we will prosper. If we fail to see it as a font of profound wisdom, then we will unfortunately have to pay a heavy price. Hopefully, we haven’t already begun to do so.

May you be blessed.