At first glance I thought I had the most boring parshah of them all. On the face of it the entire thing is just a long list of directions for how to build a Tabernacle.
But why did we need a Tabernacle? Picture this, the Israelites had just escaped from slavery. They left what security they knew of behind them. They must have felt very uncertain and afraid at that time. Moses was telling them about this invisible God. But they wanted more than that, they wanted to see their God, touch their God, they wanted a tangible God! So, to meet these human needs they built the golden calf. When Moses saw the calf he threw the stone tablets down in a rage and stormed back up the mountain.
When Moses gets to the top of the mountain God is not especially pleased with the people. And after some words with Moses (that I will get into a little bit later) God reminds Moses that a leader should never turn his back on his people, no matter what. Just like parents shouldn't turn away from their children when their children mess up. So, God basically says to Moses "they want tangible? ... I'll give them tangible." At this point God gives Moses my parsha which consists of about 2 billion explicit directions for building the Tabernacle. It's like if your kid draws on the wall you don't send him to an orphanage, you give him a piece of paper.
But wait! In the Torah the story of the Tabernacle precedes the story of the golden calf. That order of stories doesn't make sense to me. First God tells Moses to build the Tabernacle and then the Israelites go off and build the golden calf?
When I researched this issue I found out that this is a hot potato that the Rabbis have been tossing around for centuries.
Like me, Rashi sees the Tabernacle as a response to the golden calf. He states, "there is no chronological order in the Torah, the story of the golden calf took place many days before the commandment to make the Tabernacle." I said before that God was not especially pleased about the calf. Actually, when the Israelites made the golden calf God became so angry that God threatened not only to disown the people but even to kill them all! At this point Moses intercedes on behalf of the Jewish people, and God listens to reason. So, rather than reacting in anger God demonstrates understanding. In Nehama Lebowitz's Studies in Exodus she writes that the Midrash speaks of the Tabernacle "as a concession to human frailty." I believe that the sentence in my parsha, "And let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them," may be words of forgiveness.
But, on the other hand, according to Ramban the Torah is in chronological order. God anticipated the Israelites need for a physical way of relating to God even before they built the golden calf. The Tabernacle was in the original plans, as Nehama Lebowitz puts it, "as a deliberate act of divine grace and thoughtfulness." But, the worship of the golden calf threatened this new relationship with God. Luckily, Moses was able to go up the mountain to have that little chat with God. The people repented and God forgave them.
But, if the Tabernacle was in the plans to begin with why then didn't God reveal the Tabernacle plans earlier? I think the answer to that is simply that there was no meeting place in the middle of the desert for God to tell Moses to go to, to hand over the plans. It was all just sand. So, even God had to wait until they reached Mount Sinai.
And finally, I read in the Etz Hayim that "a principle of traditional exegesis states that the Torah occasionally departs from the chronological order so as to make a special point." The point here is to focus on the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The question is, what kind of a relationship did God offer the Jewish people?
Before Sinai the Jewish people had a very weak relationship with God. The only thing keeping the relationship together was Moses. After Sinai the relationship was between God and each and every Jewish person. Or, as R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk observed, the verse reads "and let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." It does not say "and let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it." It is written this way to teach us that each person must build the Mishkan in their own heart. They must have their own personal relationship with God.
As I waded deeper into my Parsha I found lessons about Jews relationship to God and to each other, hints about how to be a good human being, even suggestions for how to dress!
There were some interesting details in the instruction for the Tabernacle as well. The tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were to be placed in an ark overlaid with gold inside and out. Why put gold on the inside where nobody can see it? I think it's a message that our insides should be like our outsides, or, as Rava said, "any Torah scholar whose outside is not like his inside is not a Torah scholar." Sometimes we put out an image of ourselves that reflects what other people want to see more than who we really are.
On the cover of the ark sit 2 cherubs with outstretched wings facing each other. That the Cherubim are facing each other instead of facing up to God suggests that we must not only look to God for answers and advice but we should also look to our fellow man and woman for help.
According to Sadeh Margalit in A Chasidic Torah Commentary, "A Jew must have two qualities: stretching forth their wings on high - he or she should always strive to move upward, to higher and higher levels, while at the same time, their faces will look to one another - he must notice his fellow's distress and be always willing to help him or her. These two qualities are linked to one another."
I found a poem, handwritten by Rabbi Burstein, that speaks to this in my grandmothers prayer book that she got at her confirmation, it goes:
"I sought my God, my God I could not see.
I sought my soul, my soul eluded me.
I sought my fellow man and I found all three."
My parsha teaches us to live a good life and maybe even how to dress. In the description of the Tabernacle itself we see that on the outside the Tabernacle was covered over with a tent of plain animal skins. But on the inside was where the Holy of Holies lay and where all of the fine metals and other precious things were. Rabbi Y. Nissenboim states "this teaches us that ones primary beauty should remain on the inside, as showing off our finery can arouse jealousy in our neighbors." The Tabernacle was plain on the outside. Appearances can be deceiving. This is just like my parsha, on the outside it is dull but when you take a little bit of time to go inside it has a lot to say.
When I first picked up my parsha I thought it was the most boring parsha of them all but when I dug a little deeper it had a lot to tell me. A lot of things in life are this way. And maybe that is the most important thing that I learned from my parsha. I now know it's a good idea to dig a little deeper. You never know what you might find.
Ethan Kimball would like to thank Dean Kertesz and Lee Bearson for their help with this drash.