“Bringing Heaven Down To Earth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Pekudei, the second of this week’s double parshiot, Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, is finally erected and an elaborate dedication ceremony takes place.

The Torah in Exodus 40:17 relates, וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן, it was on the first month of the second year [from the Exodus from Egypt] on the first of the month, that the Tabernacle was erected. The Torah reports that Moses proceeded to erect the Tabernacle, putting down its sockets, placing its planks and inserting its bars, erecting its pillars, and positioning the cover on the tent over the Tabernacle, as G-d had commanded him.

Moses then proceeded to place the various furnishings in their proper locations inside the Tabernacle, beginning with positioning the Ark behind the פָּרֹכֶת, the dividing curtain, inside the Holy of Holies. Moses then placed the Table of Showbread on the north side of the Tabernacle and inserted the 12 loaves of bread on the table shelves. He then positioned the מְנוֹרָה, the seven-branched candelabra, on the south side of the Tabernacle, and kindled the lights, and placed the Golden Altar in front of the Menorah. Moses proceeded to affix the curtain at the entrance of the Tabernacle, stationed the earthen altar outside the Tabernacle, and placed the washing laver in between the large altar and the Tabernacle. Moses then erected the curtain wall around the entire courtyard of the Tabernacle. As he concluded positioning all the elements of the Tabernacle, a Divine cloud suddenly appeared, covering the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle.

The Midrash states that the process of erecting the Tabernacle began seven days earlier, on the 23rd of Adar and concluded on Rosh Chodesh, the first of Nissan. Since Aaron had not yet been consecrated to serve, Moses acted as the High Priest.  Moses personally erected and disassembled the Tabernacle every day for seven days, taking it down every night. On the eighth day, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Moses erected the Tabernacle for the final time. The duty of erecting and disassembling the Tabernacle was now transferred to the Levites. The Tabernacle was sanctified on that day, the first of Nissan, and Aaron and his sons were consecrated into the priesthood and began to serve.

The language used in the Torah to describe the erecting of the Tabernacle is somewhat perplexing. In Exodus 40:17, the Torah states that, on the first day of the first month of the second year הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן, the Tabernacle was erected. The very next verse, Exodus 40:18 states, וַיָּקֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, and Moses erected the Tabernacle.

The passive word הוּקַם, was erected, implies that the Tabernacle was erected by itself, apparently, miraculously. However, Exodus 40:18 states clearly that Moses erected the Tabernacle.

Rashi in Exodus 39:33 addresses this ambiguity by citing the Midrash Tanchumah:

Because [Moses] had not done any work on the construction of the Tabernacle, the Al-mighty left the erecting to him [so he should not feel left out]. No human being was able to erect it [the Tabernacle] because of the weight of the beams, as a man does not have the strength to set them upright. But Moses erected it. Moses said to the Al-mighty, “How can erecting [the Mishkan] be accomplished by human beings?” The Holy one, blessed he He, said to him, “You [Moses], involve yourself in erecting the Tabernacle with your own hands and it will appear as if you were setting it up, but it will rise upright and stand by itself.” This is the meaning of what is said, “The Mishkan was set up” [as if it were set up by itself].

It is difficult to fully appreciate how special a moment it was when the Tabernacle was finally completed and began to function. The design, erecting and fashioning of the Tabernacle was clearly a physical phenomenon. The Hebrew slaves, whose only skills up until this point had been gathering straw and making bricks in Egypt, were somehow able to fashion the most intricate furnishings of the Tabernacle, and design, weave and sew the most ornate garments of the lay and High Priests. All this took place in the wilderness, among people who had no training for the specialized work in metal, precious stones, weaving and carpentry that was required. And, yet, with G-d’s help, it was miraculously accomplished.

Nevertheless, all the workmen, with their newly-discovered talents, and even the great Moses, could not raise up the Tabernacle to ready it for the arrival of the Divine Presence. Therefore, G-d instructed Moses to make an extra special effort and lift the beams to place the coverings over them. When Moses’ efforts failed at first, G-d advised him that a sincere effort would succeed. That is exactly what happened. The Al-mighty helped Moses raise the beams and cover them with the special Tabernacle covers, and the Divine Presence filled the Tabernacle.

It was only through the extraordinary spiritual devotion of Moses and the People of Israel that the Tabernacle was transformed from a purely physical structure into the “Dwelling Place” of the Divine Presence. It is through extraordinary human effort that the Divine Presence is brought down to earth to dwell in the Tabernacle.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where do you find G-d?” He wisely answered, ”Wherever you let Him in!” The ancient people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, let G-d in, and brought the Divine Presence to dwell in a human structure.

It is that very same Divine Presence that continues to envelop the Al-mighty’s people to this very day.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this coming Friday night, March 13, 2015. We expect over 50,000 participants throughout North America. Please call 1(888) SHABBAT, or click here to find a local Shabbat Across America and Canada location, and sign up for “a Taste of Shabbat,” a taste of the World to Come!