Torah Reading for Week of February 16-22, 2014
Why was the Mishkan so Important?
Rabbi Michael Menitoff PhD, Dean of AJRCA Rabbinical School
In scoring many Olympic events, including but not limited to figure skating and snowboarding, the degrees of difficulty of the programs or runs are among the factors taken into consideration by the judges. Obviously, an athlete who assumes great challenges and performs them well is appropriately rewarded.
It may be an unimaginable stretch to compare the production of a D’var Torah to an Olympic performance. But one of the AJRCA rabbinical students who was to schedule a D’var Torah for the daily minyan asked, tongue in cheek, whether she would be given extra consideration were she to choose a more difficult and less popular parasha. And, for the record, she did not need anything extra, as she spoke beautifully this week about the challenging Torah portion of Vayakhel near the end of the book of Shemot (Exodus). Would that I do as well.
Vayakhel restates, in a somewhat different context from the original, the implementation of intricate and detailed regulations for the building of the Mishkan, the portable desert Tabernacle. The construction of the Mishkan, however, is anti-climactic. It certainly represents a let-down from sublime grandeur of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, at Mt. Sinai.
So why was the Mishkan so central? And why were its requirements so specific? Why need the Torah have devoted two parshiot earlier in Exodus to the commandments for its building, and this week’s and next’s parshiot to describing its successful completion? From the point of view of space and energy, why was the Mishkan given so much attention?
Among rabbinic answers to these questions are that the Tabernacle was expiation for the sin of the golden calf described in the predecessor portion of Ki Tissa. While the actual chronologies are unclear and imprecise, what the rabbis are emphasizing is that repentance and remediation, even for sins of gravity, are available. Just as the Israelites contributed of their gold and silver for the building of the calf, so too were they willing, once they realized the error of their ways, to give of their substance and their very beings, to the building of the Mishkan. One need not be mired in wrongdoing with the mistaken notion that there is no avenue for escape or doing better. The road to recovery is always available and thus the centrality of the building of the Mishkan for the Book of Exodus.
Another approach suggests that G-d was the ultimate benevolent and loving parent when He/She commanded the Israelites to build the Mishkan. It was not that G-d necessarily thought of the Mishkan as the ultimate habitation for His glory. As One who recognized the frailty of Her children, with infinite wisdom, G-d recognized the Israelites’
need for a physical entity to remind them of G-d. After all, they had been slaves in Egypt, surrounded by a culture of paganism and idolatry. In their journey to the Promised Land, they needed a physical representation of G-d in their midst, before such a time as they could internalize an invisible Supreme Being. In requiring the Mishkan, G-d was teaching good parenting skills. For parents must meet their children where they are in order to teach and elevate them.
Why is there need for such details in the laws of Mishkan? Because for anything that matters, the specifics are of paramount importance. G-d is indeed in the details.
Respecting a relevant verse in the companion portion of Pekudei which is read most frequently directly alongside Vayakhel, Exodus 39:42 reads, “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work.” The question is why does the text say “all the work?” Is that not superfluous? The sages teach that the repetition suggests the degree to which the Israelites performed painstaking, hard work in erecting the Mishkan. They took no short cuts. They observed both the letter and spirit of the Divine instruction.
Similarly, in our homes and workplaces, in our synagogues and schools, in competitive sports, and in all aspects of our lives, if we want to live up to our highest potentials as children of G-d, we must take on our tasks with utmost seriousness, devotion, and dedication. There is no substitute for the indefatigable expenditure of time, energy, and loving care. It is incumbent upon us to be assiduous, conscientious, and tireless, as were our ancestors in building the Mishkan. If we do so, then the Presence of the Lord will gently hover over us, as it did over the Tabernacle in days of yore.