parsha of the week

Understanding the contents of the Mishkan


As we undertake the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), we find many instructions that have been made more understandable to us through the numerous books of illustrations and charts the describe the holy vessels in great detail.

As much as we know, we can argue with hindsight that we understand the instructions better than most of those who lived at that time. [For comparison, Google “Tabernacle images” and you’ll find many Christian sources and illustrations; Christians certainly know the story of the Exodus and the Tabernacle, but they clearly have a different perception of what the Torah’s instructions translate to in practical terms.]

The truth is that even Moshe had difficulty with some of the instructions, so much so that G-d needed to show him the equivalent of a holographic image in order for him to be able to transmit the instructions to the builders in a fashion they would understand.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates 25:40 as follows: “Carefully observe the pattern that you will be shown on the mountain and make [the menorah] in that manner.” Note the brackets. This is a clear reflection of Rashi’s commentary, that Moshe did not understand what the Menorah was to look like. And, since this verse comes at the conclusion of the depiction of the Menorah, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Menorah was the sole item which Moshe could not picture in his mind based on its description.

However, the verse says “You will see and do, in their forms, as you will be shown on the mountain.” The word “forms” is attached to the plural, indicating that in truth, it wasn’t just the Menorah. It was, at the very least, all the vessels which preceded this one.

Could it really be that Moshe couldn’t understand what all the vessels were to look like? More pointedly, owing to the actual plural language of the verse, why does Rashi pinpoint the Menorah alone, ignoring that Moshe may have had a problem with all the vessels?

On a simple level, it is understandable if Moshe does not understand the details of construction; many great scholars of Torah could not read a blueprint or understand architectural drawings.

The Maharal of Prague (Gur Aryeh) addresses the problem in Rashi’s insight, noting that the Talmud (Menachot 29a) says, “G-d showed Moshe a Menorah of fire, a table of fire, and an ark of fire.” He notes that Moshe actually had difficulty with the menorah alone, but once G-d was showing him the Menorah, G-d showed him everything, because the entire Mishkan is interconnected in a deeper way than their just being the vessels of the same edifice. (see verse 25:9 as support)

The Hebrew word of what you should see and do is b’tavnitam. Rabbenu Bachaye notes that the word should really be k’tavnitam. The former means “in its form” while the latter means “as its form.” If you are imitating what you’ve seen, you should do “as it is” and not “in its form.”

He explains that there is no way to do “as” it was because Moshe was shown a fiery version of each vessel. The prefix of the letter “bet” indicates to Moshe that there is an internal understanding and an internal influence which will manifest itself in the instruction and in the final construction of each vessel.

It is a very simple lesson. We do not live our Jewish lives simply mimicking that which we see in others. We don’t do what we do as copycats. We do what we do because we internalize the strength and value in the ways we interpret and live our Jewish lives.

This takes strength and fortitude. And it also takes personal education, and personal motivation to grow in our connection to G-d, and in our understanding of what it takes to raise the bar on our own experiences.

For Moshe, he knew what he knew and understood what was clear. But even in what he did not understand, he recognized that the Mishkan was an entire package. Some things came easily, some were more difficult. But when you look at the totality, you see where G-d’s influence is needed — not just in the parts you don’t understand, but even in the parts that seem to be clear as day.

Let us be blessed to see G-d’s place in not only the difficult (I do this because G-d said so, even though I don’t understand), but also in the aspects of our Jewish experiences that are easy, and as a result, sometimes rote.