In contrast to the drama of the early chapters of the Book of Exodus, the concluding sections are devoted primarily to the instructions regarding the first Israelite portable sanctuary, the Mishkan (Tabernacle). What meanings can be derived from all the details of this project found in the Torah?
First, as the initial incarnation of the Israelite religious system, the Mishkan has historical value: it is, after all, the first “Jewish” sanctuary, the place where everything began. And as the Hebrew root word of Mishkan suggests — meaning “to dwell”— it is a worship site in which God’s presence is to be experienced. One of the Jewish names of God, Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God, derives from the same Hebrew root word as Mishkan.
Second, there is a continuity between several of the ancient appurtenances of the Mishkan and the artifacts found in almost every contemporary synagogue. The Ark of the Mishkan held the Ten Commandments, just as the Ark in a synagogue holds the Torah scrolls. The perpetual altar fire of the Mishkan becomes the ner tamid (eternal light) found over the ark in synagogues.
Third, there are lessons to be learned from the materials used to construct the Mishkan. In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observes that the materials used in the construction of the Mishkan are not serendipitous. The altar-table, for example, is made of wood — a living material, a material that invites the partnership of the craftsperson, who shapes it, measures it, and assembles it into a form that determines its meaning. It is malleable.
As Hirsch notes: “The table thus symbolizes the material aspects of life which, by their very nature, are subject to changes … only in the Sanctuary of God does the table, through the spirit and the ordinances of God’s Law, receive its set limits, its firmness, endurance, and eternal meaning.” On analogy, humans, like trees, represent a living thing, a growing thing, in need of being shaped and formed, in our case, by God’s teachings.
By contrast, the menorah (candelabrum) of the Mishkan is the only object comprised entirely of metal — and of gold at that. To Rabbi Hirsch, this is the antithesis of the altar-table. The gold of the menorah symbolizes permanence and eternality; the wood of the altar-table represents growth and change.
From this oppositional analysis, Hirsch derives the teaching that “the only firm, immutable, and eternal element [within human beings] is the Divine element” — the spark of divinity in each of us that serves to limit, shape, and determine what we can become — when we live in fidelity to the teachings of God.
This interplay between what is permanent, eternal, and unchanging, and that which is growing, fluid, and capable of transformation becomes the locus for understanding what it means to be human. As human beings grow in longevity as well as in wisdom, knowledge, and experience, the possibility of renewing and restructuring our lives constantly presents itself. Yet even as we age and change, we seek a core of continuity that provides a sense of permanence and stability to our lives, irrespective of the changes through which we move.
In Torah, Jews first found the glimmer of those teachings that could sustain us across the generations, through the seasons of each person’s life. That permanent core became the center around which we have, from generation to generation, given form to our lives.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Wynnewood, Pa.