“The Mishkan and the Sanctity of the Jewish Home”
(updated and revised from Terumah 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, we begin a series of five weekly Torah portions that deal with the building of the מִּשְׁכָּן Mishkan, the Tabernacle–the portable sanctuary that the Jews erected and utilized in the wilderness.

Parashiot Terumah, Tetzaveh, a part of Kee Tisah, as well as parshiot Vayakhel and Pekudei, describe the processes of the design and the building of the Mishkan. These portions recount in minute detail all the materials utilized in the construction of the Mishkan: the acacia wood, rams’ skin dyed red, cherubs, and more. There’s even a reference to the skins of animals called תְּחָשִׁיםT’chashim, which is translated in some texts as seal skins. It is, obviously, highly unlikely that there were any seals in the wilderness, but, with so miracles happening, one can never be certain!

These parshiot also refer extensively to measurements: a cubit, a cubit and a half, two cubits, two and a half cubits. In essence, while these Torah portions may be an architect’s dream, they are truly a rabbi’s nightmare!

Notwithstanding, all the seemingly vexing detail of the Tabernacle, the Torah is never, ever irrelevant. To the contrary, with proper explication, the Torah always ultimately proves itself to be highly relevant and, at times, quite ahead of its time. Part of the challenge of studying these Torah portions is to uncover the inner meanings, and often the inner magic, that is to be found in each of the Tabernacle’s furnishings, as well as in each of the extensive descriptions.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, G-d instructs the Israelites to donate various precious materials to the national building effort–gold, silver, purple thread, red thread, various animal skins and precious stones, all to be utilized in the construction of the Tabernacle.

In Exodus 25:8 the Bible records G-d’s command, וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם , “And you [Israel] shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” Interestingly, the Al-mighty does not instruct the people to build a sanctuary to dwell in the sanctuary. After all, an Omnipresent G-d, cannot be confined to a sanctuary. Rather the verse is affirming, that if the Jewish people build a sanctuary for G-d, He will dwell “in their midst”–among the people of Israel.

Clearly, the obvious and ultimate purpose of the Tabernacle is to help the Jewish people focus on G-d. That place of focus may be a miniature Temple, such as a local synagogue, or even a location somewhere in the wilderness. Obviously, the portable Tabernacle, and, of course, the permanent Temple that was later erected in Jerusalem, are significant locations in which, and upon which, Jews are to focus.

The Torah, in another of its revolutionary statements, introduces to the world the idea of קָדוֹשׁ ,–sacred or holy. The Torah affirms that there can be sacred time, sacred space, and that human beings themselves are considered sacred.

The idea of “sacred” is a truly revolutionary idea of unfathomable proportion, but its grandeur is often unappreciated. Contemporary society, in fact, has abandoned much of the idea that human beings are intended to be sacred beings, and, as that appreciation is lost, the humanity of our society is significantly and progressively diminished. Furthermore, nowhere is that sense of sanctity more necessary than in the Jewish home.

Therefore, a major function of the ancient Tabernacle was to serve as a מִקְדָּשׁ –Mikdash, a sanctuary. The fact that the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and its central furnishings so closely resemble the Jewish home, is intended to underscores the sanctity of the Jewish domicile. By analyzing each of the Tabernacle’s furnishings, we may uncover the vital symbolic meanings that are being communicated.

In the front and larger portion of the inner sanctuary known as the קֹּדֶשׁKodesh or “holy” section, are to be found three most significant furnishings: the Menorah (the candelabra), the Table of Showbread, and the Golden Altar. According to rabbinic interpretation, the menorah, which is a seven-branched candelabra, represents the seven streams of wisdom, sciences, philosophy, literature, language and all other wisdom, with the central branch of the Menorah representing the flame of Torah. The menorah is designed so that all the wicks of the three left branches and the three right branches face toward the center. This underscores the idea that all of human wisdom and understanding emanate from the central branch, from the Torah.

Every home has a table. The table in the Tabernacle is known as the שֻּׁלְחָן לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים , the Table of the Showbread. Every week, 12 fresh showbreads, which were actually shaped like bent matzot and represent the 12 tribes, were baked, to replace the previous week’s 12 loaves, which were eaten on Shabbat. These breads represent material endowment, the food that Jews have on their tables, and the people’s general economic wherewithal. While the spiritual endowments of the home are reflected in the menorah, the material endowments are symbolized by the table.

In the forefront of the Kodesh section, stood the מִּזְבֵּחַ הָזָהָב , the Golden Altar. Offered to G-d on this altar is the melding of the Jews’ intellectual endowments (represented by the Menorah), and material endowments (represented by the Table of Showbread). The horns of the altar point upward to underscore that all our endowments are offered toward heaven.

The innermost chamber of the holy Tabernacle is known as קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים , the Holy of Holies. In the Holy of Holies only a single, most sacred, furnishing is found, the Holy Ark–known as the Aron. The Torah text, at great length, describes the details of the Ark. The ark itself, a rectangular-shaped box, contained the Torah, the five books of Moses, and the two stone tablets upon which were etched the Ten Commandments. The extensive detailed instructions concerning the building of the Ark underscore its prime centrality to Jewish life.

A fascinating feature of the Ark is that while it looks as though it is made of solid gold, it is really constructed of acacia wood. Gold, of course, is a most valuable substance, perhaps the purest precious metal found in nature. Unlike copper or silver, when gold is removed from the earth it contains no impurities. The Talmud tells us that the ark was actually constructed, not of metal, but of three concentric wooden boxes, each fitting into the next. The outermost and innermost boxes were covered with gold, while the middle box, is simply natural, unadorned acacia wood.

The rabbis suggest that despite gold’s unparalleled purity and beauty, it is, after all, a mineral substance that does not grow. That is why the essential structure of the Ark must be constructed of wood–a live and growing material. Of course, those who hold onto the Torah, those who learn the Torah, must shine, like gold, but if the scholars can’t grow, and don’t grow, in their learning, then their value is effectively diminished.

This urgent need for growth is what the Kotzker Rebbe meant, when he was asked, “Who is higher on the ladder, the person on top, or the person on bottom?” He realized that the question was a set up, and responded very cleverly: “It depends in which direction they are going! If the person on the bottom is on his or her way up, and the person on top is on her or his way down, then theoretically, the person at the bottom, may very well be higher than the one on top.”

This, then, is really what Jewish homes are meant to represent. At the very core of our homes must be Torah, the Ark, made purposely of modest wood, yet covered with beautiful gold. More important than the beauty of the gold is the desire and ability to grow.

The lesson of the Mishkan is that each of us must see the ultimate purpose in life to be the desire to strive upwards, to climb to a higher rung on the ladder. This is the ultimate secret of the Jewish home–sanctity and growth.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering the vile nation, Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.