The Beginnings of the Mishkan

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Mishkan Started at Sinai

Parshat Terumah opens with Hashem telling Moshe to collect donations for the building of a Mishkan (referred to in 25;8 as a Mikdash, a sanctified place, as the later structure in Yerushalayim would be called). The verse’s reason for building it is so that Hashem will reside in their midst. Ramban to 25;2 expands that basic idea, in a way that offers perspective on issues that crop up often in our times as well.

He starts back at Sinai, because he will come around to argue that this Mishkanwill continue Sinai in important ways. Before he gets to that, he makes important points about what happened on Mount Sinai itself. He says Hashem spoke to the people face to face, a phrase the Torah invokes to describe Moshe Rabbenu’s prophecy. The Torah seems to see it as special to Moshe, yet Ramban implies that on that one special occasion, the whole people experienced it.

The Broader Interest of the Aseret HaDibberot  

Next, he characterizes the Aseret HaDibberot as sort of avot of themitzvotAvot is an halachic term most well-known from the laws of Shabbat, where the prohibitions of creative labor are delineated in thirty-nine overall categories, known as avot, but which have many toladot, related activities just as fully Biblically prohibited. Avotare ways to encapsulate the versions of a phenomenon in a central category.

When he says that the Aseret HaDibberot were like avot, he is saying they served that function for mitzvot as a whole [this is not his innovation; already in the time of the Geonim, a genre of Jewish literature sourced all 613 Biblical commandments in the Aseret HaDibberot. One famous example is that of R. Sa’adya Gaon]. Because of that, Ramban thought that much of what rabbis would teach potential converts [the Gemara speaks of teaching a convert some significant and some minor commandments; it’s not clear that Ramban claims that the Ten Commandments, as they tend to be called, would be all we had to teach, but he clearly means it was much of it. It bears remembering that teaching the Aseret HaDibberot as halachah   understands them would challenge converts even from religions that know these Ten, since halachah interprets them to include more than the world at large assumesce s/he likely either did not know them or thought they meant much less than halachah sees them as requiring of us].

What Sinai Accomplished

His next note about Sinai that we might not remember is that the Jews had made a pact/covenant, committing to whatever Hashem would command them through the agency of Moshe Rabbenu.

That earned them a remarkable dividend, as we’ll see in a moment, but I want to pause to consider that statement. Ramban is sure the Jewish people undertook full obedience to Moshe [often echoed in comments about na’aseh ve-nishma, that the Jews said they would obey the Torah first, seek to understand it second].

I draw attention to it because it seems at unfortunate odds with historical reality, in the time of the desert and many eras since. Sadly, I know of few eras whose leaders could expect Jews to faithfully uphold even just halachot in the Torah, let alone whatever tweaks or ordinances those leaders made. Worse, many Jews today do not believe that’s a desideratum or expectation.

I often find myself aground in conversations, because fellow Jews are unwilling to agree that if Hashem said something, we have to strive to obey it. Part of what saddens me about that is that it means we are still not ready for the great boon Ramban is about to introduce, one that he thinks the Jewish people earned with that commitment at Sinai.

A Continuing Revelation of Hashem’s Presence

The sanctity conferred by the Jews’ agreement to obey Hashem’s laws made them worthy of having Hashem’s Presence in their midst. The idea of Presence is in the Torah itself; Ramban adds that it’s the same Presence as at Sinai. He identifies the essence of the Mishkan as the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, which is why it’s discussed first. And the aspect of the Aron that matters most is mentioned in 25;22, that Hashem would appear to Moshe there, and speak to Moshe from on top of the Aron.

That Presence, which appeared over the Aron, was a private version of the Presence which had appeared openly and publicly at Sinai. And it would appear there continuingly, continuously, and continually (I love when I can find alliterative synonyms in three’s).

That’s why the verse says, twice, that the Mishkan was filled with Hashem’s Presence.

Helping Teens of the Jewish World

One reason I’m fixated on Ramban’s view is that I used to have frequent conversations with teens, going back to when I worked with YU Seminars, NCSY, and then later when I taught high school. I met many who struggled with how they could know that Gd existed. It’s hard to commit to a counterintuitive system with a distant Commander, especially in a culture that raises autonomy to an ideal.

Ramban’s view is that that level of blind obedience was never intended. We were supposed to live in a world where the Presence we saw at Sinai was in fact always still there, if more privately. True, few of us would enter the structure where that Presence was most directly felt, but I assume Ramban thought it would radiate outwards, too, in a way that would have helped assure Jews of Hashem’s existence (because if not, it’s not of value to anyone other than Moshe or the Kohen Gadol).

That did not negate the challenge of serving Hashem properly, since the Jews of both Temples sinned badly enough that they were exiled. It may not be the answer to all our problems, but it is a reminder that the world we have is not the world Hashem meant, and some of our challenges stem from our failure to live up to what we committed to at Sinai.

How We Help

I admit that I did not find as many comments on which to write as usual, so it’s fortunate that our first one was so rich. Ramban does offer an idea in verse 3 that bears commenting, but it’s a Midrash, so I’ll just mention it and leave it for some other time. Shemot Rabbah 49;3 links Hashem’s use of the word terumah for the donations to the Mishkan to Yirmiyahu 2;3’s reference to the Jewish people as the first of Hashem’s crop, or terumah. That assumes much about the Jewish people’s role in the world as well as what Hashem wanted out of our agricultural gifts.

Ramban offers his own idea on verse 10, where the Torah says ve-‘asu Aron, the Jewish people shall make an Ark. This verse uses a plural verb, whereas the next two, about the command to plate the Ark in gold and make rings on its four corners, speak in the singular, that he shall do the various actions. Ramban says this first plural was to tell us all the Jews should be involved in making the Ark even if the process in fact will be conducted by individuals.

That’s, first, so that they will all “merit the Torah,” based on the idea that the Ark symbolizes the Torah (since it contains the luchot, the Tablets). Partaking of the building will ease the people’s way to studying and absorbing Torah.

It’s his definition of “participating” that stood out to me. The Jews will either each offer some gold specifically for the construction of the Ark, help Betzalel with some aspect of that construction, or intend that it happen. That last one is the most surprising—Ramban seems to mean that wanting the Ark to be built is enough to make a Jew part of the process of building it.

I think that’s exactly what he meant, a point often lost today, that communal consent (or disapproval) is a powerful force in shaping that community’s mores. A community all of whose members intently support a certain endeavor gets some credit for its coming to fruition even if many of them contributed only by their goodwill, their wanting it to happen.

The reverse is true as well, that communal disapproval helps stop certain activities, but that’s said elsewhere in the Torah. Here, Ramban has just pointed out that the Aron was meant to be a joint endeavor of the Jewish people as a whole, as is all of our acceptance of Torah.

The Aron as Chariot

Verse 21 tells Moshe to put the luchot, the Tablets, into the Ark, information we already heard in verse 16. To explain, Ramban says that it’s to connect the keruvim (the cherubs) that sit on top of the Aron to the luchot. Hashem says that He will speak with Moshe from between the keruvim, and Ramban thinks that that’s because of their location atop the luchot.

He connects that to Yechezkel’s vision of the Ma’aseh Merkavah, Work of the Chariot, but the piece of it that sticks out here is that he sees it as a function of the presence of the luchot, which contain (as we saw) the roots of all themitzvot.

For Ramban, then, it’s all linked—the Divine Presence appeared at Sinai to reveal the Aseret HaDibberot. Those dibberot, recorded on the luchot, made us worthy of a continuing Divine Presence of the same level, and that Presence appeared to Moshe over theAron, the container for those very luchot. And, crucially, we were all supposed to participate in the construction of that Aron and, I assume, of the study and fulfillment of the Torah contained therein.

About Gidon Rothstein

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