“Form Over Content, or Content Over Form?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, is the first in a series of five parashiot that deal with the design, building and erecting of the Mishkan, the ancient portable Tabernacle that served as a sanctuary for the People of Israel in the wilderness.

It is quite remarkable that the Torah places, what appears to be, undue emphasis on the Tabernacle. Although many reasons are suggested to account for the Torah’s extensive verbiage, suffice it to say that the Tabernacle is often understood to represent the Jewish home. If that is indeed the case, then there can never be enough said or written about building a proper Jewish home.

Parashat Terumah opens with G-d instructing Moses to appeal to the Jewish people to donate the varied materials that are necessary for building the Tabernacle. In his appeal, Moses asks the people to contribute gold, silver, copper, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, linen and goat hair, red dyed ram skins, Tachash skins, acacia wood, oil for illuminations, spices for the anointment oil and aromatic incense, Shoham stones and stones for the setting for the Ephod and the breastplate.

G-d then tells Moses, in Exodus 25:8, “V’ah’soo lee mik’dahsh v’shah’chahn’tee b’toh’chahm,” And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, so that I might dwell among them. G-d proceeds to tell Moses that the people should build the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:9) “K’chol ah’sher ah’nee mar’eh oht’cha,” like everything that I show you, the form of the Tabernacle and the form of all the vessels; and so shall you do.

The Al-mighty then instructs Moses to tell the people to make the Ark and the Ark cover, the Table of the Showbread, the Menorah, and the covers for the Tabernacle. This is followed by the details for building the structure itself, including the columns and the planks, the curtains, the Sacrificial Altar, and, finally, the courtyard.

The Talmud, in Brachot 55a, records a fascinating statement that Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani made in the name of Rabbi Johanan, regarding the building of the Tabernacle and the origin of the name “Bezalel,” the architect of the Tabernacle:

Bezalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: “Go and tell Bezalel to make a Tabernacle, an Ark and vessels,” Moses [however] went and reversed the order, saying, “Make an Ark and vessels and a Tabernacle.” Bezalel said to him: “Moses, our Teacher, as a rule, man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, ‘Make me an Ark and vessels and a Tabernacle.’ Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, ‘Make a Tabernacle, an Ark and vessels’?” Moses replied: “Perhaps you were in the shadow of G-d [Bezayl El] and knew!”

The commentary in the ArtScroll edition of the Talmud explains that, “G-d instructed Moses to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) first, and then to build the Ark and the vessels, as it is stated (Exodus 31:1-7): ‘G-d spoke to Moses saying: See I have proclaimed by name, Bezalel…I have assigned with him Oholiab…and they shall make all that I have commanded you–the Tent of Meeting (i.e. the Mishkan), the Ark of Testimonial-Tablets and the Cover that is upon it, and all the vessels of the Tent, etc…’ But when Moses instructed Bezalel, he followed the order stated in chapters 25 and 26–namely the Ark, the vessels (Table and Menorah) and the Mishkan.”

When Bezalel ultimately makes the Mishkan (Exodus 36 and 37), we see that Bezalel follows the original order, building the Tabernacle first and then fashioning the vessels.

Many commentators seek to understand why Moses changed G-d’s instructions, directing Bezalel to build the vessels first. Some commentators suggest that this was Moses’ way of demonstrating that Bezalel was invested with the Divine Spirit. When the people see that Bezalel follows the original instructions of G-d, rather than those that he received from Moses, they will realize how truly blessed and inspired Bezalel is.

Other commentators suggest that Moses was determined to convey a message of singular importance regarding building a Jewish home. While Bezalel was being practical and realistic, building the Tabernacle first so that there would be a place for the vessels, Moses was hoping to convey an essential message regarding the primacy of spirituality and content, over form and materialism. Surely, much of life is about balancing these two important concepts of content and form.

Being the practical architect, Bezalel was concerned that without the form of the Tabernacle itself, there would be no place for the content. Moses, however, maintained that primary emphasis must be placed, not on the outer trappings, but on the inner content and on the meanings that the vessels convey regarding peoples’ lives, and the nature of their domestic priorities.

Values are primary, declares Moses, and always take precedence over all else. What is the point of building mansions and palaces, if those who inhabit them are unhappy and unfulfilled? Every home must have Torah, educational materials, books to study, values to transmit, symbolized by the Ark. There must be light (a Menorah), representing joy and happiness, and enlightenment from all the sources of learning and knowledge in the world. Of course, there must be a means of earning a livelihood (Table of the Showbread), to provide the wherewithal and resources, enabling the home to function properly. There must be an Altar (golden), upon which to set the family’s endowments, allowing the “sweet savor” to reach Heaven. Every home must be prepared to sacrifice (the Earthen Altar), in order to reach its exalted goals.

While Bezalel’s choice to be practical, deciding first to establish a home for the important vessels, was correct at that time, Moses chose to communicate a most essential message of family life for all future generations, setting spiritual priorities first. It is this profound message that Judaism seeks to communicate to all.

May you be blessed.