By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
This time of year, as I follow along with the weekly Torah portion, I have a lot of trouble studying the sections we are now reading that deal with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). I have a problem relating to it; how does a building they built thousands of years ago affect our lives? Why do these portions appear in the Book of Exodus, which is the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Why are they not in the Book of Leviticus, which deals with the sacrifices they brought in the Tabernacle? Thank you.
Many studying along with the weekly portion may share your questions. The answers to both entail a better understanding of the tabernacle (Mishkan).
The Torah says, “Make for Me a Mishkan (Tabernacle/dwelling place) and I will dwell amongst you” (Exodus 25:8). It should have said “and I will dwell in it”; isn’t this like a homeless person asking a group of people, “Build a home for me so I can move in with you”?
The sages explain that the purpose of the Mishkan was not that G-d should dwell within it; rather, it should be a conduit through which the Shechinah/Divine Presence should fill all Jewish homes. An electric power plant is not there for the electricity to remain within it, but to run wires which bring the warmth and light of that energy to homes in that city.
The deeper understanding is that the Mishkan was a microcosm of the entire universe. Every step of the six days of creation and Shabbat have a direct parallel in the building of the Mishkan (Midrash Tanchuma; Pekudei 3). All the elements of the universe have a hint, in miniature, in the Mishkan.
Kabbalistic sources say every person is a microcosm of the universe. The Zohar teaches that every organ and limb of our bodies corresponds to a physical or spiritual part of the universe, and to a section of the Mishkan. The Mishkan is a spiritual mirror of the human experience. The human heart corresponds to the chamber of the Mishkan called the Kodesh Hakodashim, the “Holy of Holies.” Just as the heart pumps the lifeblood throughout the body, so too the Holy of Holies, which holds the Ark and Tablets, transmits the spiritual energy throughout the Mishkan and from there to the world.
The purpose of the Mishkan is to have G-d’s Presence dwell within it, and to serve as a conduit to bring the Shechinah into the home and heart of every Jew. This is a profound lesson for our lives. We need to transform our own lives, our bodies and our homes into sanctuaries where the Shechinah will want to dwell.
The patriarchs and matriarchs lived lives so filled with holiness that they were a living embodiment of the Mishkan, and merited the dwelling of the Shechinah in their persons and in their tents. The Jews lost that connection while in Egypt. When they left Egypt, although they were physically free, they were not truly redeemed until they returned to that elevated state of the dwelling of the Shechinah. This was attained by building the Mishkan. Only then were they spiritually redeemed as well, and the Exodus from Egypt was complete. Hence, these portions appear in the Book of Exodus. (From Nachmanides’ introduction to Exodus)
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried