The Torah portion of Vayakhel – Bereshit 35:1-38:20 – is read on Shabbat, March 5, 2016.
The Book of Exodus describes the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) not once, but four times, specifying precise measurements and minute details. Why is so much space devoted to the physical attributes of the Mishkan and its vessels, when their purpose is, fundamentally, spiritual?
The function of the Mishkan was to enhance the relationship between God and His people, Israel – to serve as a medium of communication that could bridge the vast, immeasurable distance between the finite and the infinite.
Building the Mishkan can be compared to constructing a spaceship. Space travel requires vehicles that can journey to distant, extraterrestrial places, but these voyages – no matter how long they are – are ultimately circumscribed by finite, physical parameters. The Mishkan, on the other hand, faced an even greater challenge: transcending the vast distance, and differences, between an infinite God and a finite humanity.
In order to build a spacecraft, one must develop a design, gather raw materials and fashion each component. Every part must be checked and double-checked, to assure that it meets the exacting specifications. All the pieces are then joined together into a cohesive unit. Finally, each part must be rechecked, each subsystem must be tested, and the whole structure must be reassembled. The Mishkan, too, was assembled, deconstructed and then constructed anew, to verify that each part perfectly complemented the others.
And after the completion of these exhaustive procedures, both the spacecraft and the Mishkan needed the same critical element in order to realize their potential: human involvement, both inside and out.
The spacecraft is guided – by engineers on the ground and by astronauts on board – as it breaches the atmosphere to join the stars in the heavens. From before liftoff, throughout its mission, and until it returns, it is closely watched by the nation and the world – united in wonder when things go well, bound together in grief when they do not.
And the Mishkan? On the last, climactic day of the dedication of the altar (Vayikra 9:1-9:24), the spiritual energy of God was to enter into the physical space of the Mishkan. The actions that would bring about this extraordinary, awe-inspiring event required exacting attention to detail: Moses directs Aaron (the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest) to perform the various sacrifices “as God has commanded” (9:7), and Aaron does so, “according to the law” (Leviticus 9:16), and “as Moshe had commanded” (9:21). It is only after the precise construction of the Mishkan and the flawless performance by Aaron, and only after Aaron and Moshe have blessed the people – creating a bond with them and among them – that God revealed Himself: “…and the glory of God appeared to the entire nation. And a fire went forth from God and consumed [the offerings] on the altar; the whole nation saw and sang with joy and fell on their faces” (9:23-24).
The consequence of heedlessness is dramatically demonstrated in the very next verse: Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, bring “a strange fire” – an unauthorized offering… and are immediately consumed by Divine fire (10:1-2).
It is active human participation in the functioning of the Mishkan – carried out with the same precision exercised in the building of the Mishkan – that makes the Mishkan complete, and enables it to achieve its holy function. The eternal Jewish people and the inanimate components of the Mishkan together experienced spiritual elevation, awed by the glorious moment, having breached the atmosphere to create a new connection to Heaven.
The physical Mishkan is gone, but the essence of Mishkan exists in the neshama (soul) of every Jew. The construction of the Mishkan required careful attention to detail; so does the development of our neshama; we cannot buy it, and we cannot fake it.
Like the Mishkan, each neshama is perfectly designed. It is up to each of us to assume responsibility for the growth and development of the one with which we have been entrusted, with its “construction” and “implementation.” We accomplish this through the way that we conduct our lives, using every action and every interaction – no matter how seemingly small or insignificant – as an opportunity to discover and fulfill our purpose and our potential. The work is demanding, but it is not beyond our ability. And if each of us takes one little step and then another, we can connect Heaven and Earth.