The House We Build Together

The building of the Mischan by the Hebrew’s following their Exodus

In this weeks Torah portion (T’rumah), the 19th of 54 sedras in the Torah and the 7th of 11 in Shemot is primarily concerned with the building of the Mishcan. With the exception of the incident of the Golden Calf, the book of Exodus is mostly concerned with the preparation and construction of the Mishcan (‘dwelling place’ or ‘tabernacle’). Even the Golden Calf is not unrelated to the tabernacle, as according to Soforno, the very construction of the tabernacle was made necessary because of Israel’s lapse into idolatry.  Soforno say’s that no temple should have been needed after the revelation at Sinai as the entire nation of Israel achieved prophecy and every Jew was worthy of the shecinah (divine presence) to rest upon him as it did on the Mishcan and later the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishcan housed the stone tablets containing the commandments of Jewish law transmitted at Sinai to Moshe Avinu. The word Mishcan has an interesting root (shoresh). It shares a root with the word for Shecinah, which is the divine presence and the word for neighborhood in Hebrew is Shecunah and a neighbor is a ‘Shacein’. In the first Aliyah we learn that HaShem has commanded Moshe to ask the people of Israel to donate materials in amounts that each person’s “heart wants/volunteers”. The materials that are donated are gold, silver and copper and dyed wool’s (blue, purple and red), fine linen; goat hair fabric and red-dyed sheep skins. Other materials donated are Tachash skins (an animal which we don’t know what it is and assume is extinct); acacia wood; oil for light, spices for anointing oil, the incense offerings; gemstones for the Eifod and the Choshen. There are several interesting points here already. The first is the building of the base of the Mishcan is done using communal funds. It makes me feel that this is very symbolic of building the base of a home and the home that is being built is symbolic of the Shecinah (the divine presence). I once learnt (probably from a midrash) that pieces of G-d broke away into many pieces and these pieces are the Neshama (the spirit that we essentially are) and which are recalled in the morning prayers when we recite the verse that mentions HaShem placing this into us. In my previous blog post (here), I mention the use of the half shekel (which indicates incompleteness) and how when the whole community recite the repetition of the Amidah, they stop and listen together and how when two people are united in a relationship they create a whole and here we learn that the giving of the half shekel unites the community as a whole through the building of the Mishcan. If the Neshama contains a piece of the divine, then when the Jewish people are reunited the Shecinah would also come together. Modern day Zionism, aside from providing a safe home for Jews previously scattered into exile all around the world, also gives the Jewish people an opportunity to reunite in the land of Israel. A teacher of mine (Rabbi Moshe Kaplan) once taught me (from the Rambam) that when the Jewish people are all returned from exile and are in Eretz Israel, that they are reunited with each other and the land (where the Shecinah is the strongest) and that there would be a great flow of energy between Eretz Israel and the Shamayim and this would create a huge upsurge of energy in the world. Taking a look at the title of this Torah portion T’rumah which literally means contribution (or “offering” or “gift”) but is related to the Hebrew word ‘Ram’ which roughly means ‘Ascent/Height’, then we can see there is a spiritual aspect to the contribution the nation gives in order to build the Mishcan. On a physical level we see that people desire something to worship that they can see, even after the experience of prophecy and that the building of the Mischan and later the Temple in Jerusalem  and then Synagogue’s following the destruction of the Temple gave Israel a place to gather together where they could experience the Shecinah. It might be that the prophecy of Sinai, something they experienced as a group was something that Israel continued to need to experience as a group. The Torah portion say’s that HaShem will ‘dwell in you’ (plural) meaning that he will reside in us (the people of Israel). In Sefer Torah Emet we learn that the Gematria for the Hebrew word for cloud (Arafel) is the same for the word shecinah and that Elokim is related to HaShem’s hiddenness in nature. A person is the hiding place of HaShem. We learn that on the 1st of Nissan on the 2nd month of the 2nd year after leaving Egypt that the clouds came to the Mishcan.

There are two Parashot that talk about a soul coming into a national body; these are  “Yitro” and “T’rumah”. The Shecinah could be seen as being the entrance to the nation. Also, in the opening lines of this Torah portion we see the word ‘T’rumah’ used three times and is considered to be connected to the three heave offerings. We see the used of the word Yadneinu which has the same root as good will and portion itself is about Israel giving a voluntary gift in HaShem’s honor. The work that goes into building the tabernacle have become the 39 melachot that we refrain from doing on Shabbat today.

The second thing which is remarkable is that the Torah portion implies that the garment worn by the Cohen Gadol will be made of mixed materials; wool and linen and there is also the addition of two Cherubim to the top of the ark and the lighting of fire within the Mishcan on Shabbat; all seemingly against Jewish law. In their weekly publication and commentary on the Torah portion, the Orthodox Union state that this is “not contradictory. This is recognizing G-d’s mastery of the world and our commitment to follow His commands”. I’m not sure how I feel about this as a suitable explanation. Something I learnt recently was that each person is born with a status in life and that they cannot always change it. Some people are born a Cohen, others a Levi and others Israel. Our status sometimes gives us a role (and privilege’s) and from this complete switch of how we perform the mitzvah’s given in this Torah portion, I learn that the running of the Mishcan (and later the Beit HaMikdash) requires people who are allotted with a special role in life and the rules related to them are different. In the quest for equality in the western sense, many Jewish movements and organisations are breaking down these roles and traditions in order to be more inclusive, that it’s discriminatory for people to have specific roles but they forgot that these specific roles actually represent diversity and differences. Rabbi Chezikah wrote: “It is written ‘As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved amongst the daughters'”. And who is the rose? The rose is ‘Knesset Israel’- the collective soul roots of Israel. The rose itself is the unity of all the different petals. The Zohar states that the divine presence, otherwise known as the “shecina” referred to the community of Israel.

Another reference to the home is made in this portion. The Mishcan is to contain a table (shulchan) and the table is to contain twelve specially baked loaves of bread doubled up on six shelves and placed into dishes (they are called the LeChem HaPanim) and they replace the previous weeks Shabbat bread each Friday. The one week old bread was eaten by the Kohanim having been found miraculously fresh. This sounds pretty esoteric and it could be reminding us that eating is not just a physical activity, but a spiritual one. The concept of the table with food on it reminds us of the earlier Torah portion of Be’Shelach where the Israelite’s were commanded with the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbat and the introduction to eating double portions on Shabbat was shown to us through the giving of the manna which fell from the sky and was said to be enough to give all of Israel their needs. It also recalls the Midrash that say’s that the Israelite’s did not need to go the toilet after eating the manna as it contained everything they needed and their bodies did not produce any waste as a side product. We are also brought to the concept of the Shabbat table and the opportunity it provides us to host people and give them food. Providing hospitality is a strong Jewish concept and we are also introduced to the Menorah, the Ark and the Table in this Torah portion which are part of the first house of worship (the Mishcan). These three items are in the Beit Knesset and homes today, with the Ark containing the Torah in the Beit Knesset, whilst our homes contain book cases of text and maybe even the home itself can be seen as a symbolic ark. The Mishcan contained the table for the bread, the Beit Knesset has the Bima and the home has the Shabbat table and words of Torah come from all three and the Shabbat table takes us back to the spirituality of food. The Beit Knesset very often contains a menorah, as do most Jewish homes, but they also contain Shabbat candles which are connected to the Menorah through light.

The Haftara for this Torah portion from Melachim describes the preparation of the building of the Beit HaMikdash. There is a great difference in how the Beit HaMikdash was built compared to the Mischan. The Mishcan was built with great enthusiasm and with the contribution of the community, whereas the Beit HaMikdash was built with contracted labor to bring in the contributions. In today’s sense we can see the nation’s enthusiasm for Torah and nation building in their willingness to contribute to organisations that forward our learning and development.

Other interesting tidbits from the Torah portion include the poles used to carry to Mishcan which cannot be removed (negative commandment) and which are seemingly unable to carry it (implying some kind of metaphysical event). The Cherubim placed atop the Mishcan are said to have had the faces of babies. The Rashbam say’s they were like birds and elsewhere it is said they were like female and male; symbolic of Jewish marriage. We also have the Tamid (public sacrifice) which we do today through reciting Hallel (we don’t recite it on Purim, as the reading of the Megillah is considered to be the equivalent of).

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What we also learn from the Mishcan is that it has several inner layers: three boxes in total. Two are made of gold and one of wood. The Ibn Ezra asks why not of pure gold and what is the wood for? A midrash (Vayakhel 7) states it’s because the Torah calls it a “tree of life”. The three boxes also represent the three levels of Torah. The first is ‘nigla’, revealed to everyone, The second is ‘nistar’, hidden from all but the wise and the third part teaches of the world to come. We also wonder where the wood came from in the wildnerness? Rav Tachuma states that Yaakov foresaw the building of the tabernacle and brought cedars to Egypt and from there his children were bade to take them out when they leave (as an side the cedar is a signature of Lebanaon and appears on the Lebanese flag. Cedars still grow in Israel today. In Jerusalem there is a street with an art school called Bezalel named after the creator of the Mishcan). There is interestingly a tree that grows in Israel’s Negev dessert and the Sinai today that has a similar name to Shittim. There is also a curtain covering the Ark in the Mishcan and today this is symbolized in the Synagogue by covering the Ark.

The insides are very interesting as they seem to be related to transmission. It was said that every Jew has a teacher and as the founder of prophecy, Moshe Avinu’s teacher was said to be his kidney’s (as they are from within). There is a Midrash which say’s the nation were scared and in awe when they received the Torah at Sinai and that they stood afar and that was because they were so far (on a personal level) from what was being presented. The Midrash say’s that people died when hearing the words and that their Neshama had to be put back into them repeatedly. When Haman from the story of Purim decided to kill the Jews of Persia he did a lottery and came up with the day of the 9th of Adar in which to carry out his enactment, the day that Moshe Rabeinu was born and died.This is because Moshe lived through his students. Haman understood that as long as there was prophecy, then there are students of Moshe Rabeinu. The Purim story took place close to the time of the destruction of the second Temple and although the Jewish people survived, prophecy ceased and it is said as if HaShem had become hidden from us, like in the Purim story itself where he is not mentioned once. Earlier I mentioned that the Israelites were expected to contribute that which their “heart wants” to the building of the Mishcan. In his book Mesillat Yeshiarim, Rabbi Chaim Luzarto talks about qualities such as humility affecting ones inner self. He say’s “By accustoming himself (to a humble mode) to this conduct he will cause humility to enter his heart and to inhabit it little by little until it has securely embedded itself there”.The portion say’s  “Mi’Beit and Mi’Toch” (from within and from without). This arrangement is consistent with the Talmud dictum that a Torah scholar must be consistent; his inner character must match his public demeanor (Rav Chananel). In English, the word face reminds us of the outside, a ‘facade’, but the Hebrew ‘Panim’ is recalling the interior and like qualities that become embedded in our heart with humbleness and humility the Mishcan like the human face hosts an outer layer with an inner spirituality.