We read this week about the instructions to build a mishkan, the temporary sanctuary which the Jews took with them throughout their wilderness wanderings.
It is safe to say that there is nothing which makes sense about the miskhan.
In the second commandment we are told not to make any carved images of anything resembling anything on heaven and earth, yet in the miskhan we have the ark being appointed with cherubim, two angelic figures resembling young children.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ten Commandments we are again warned about making sacred objects of gold or silver, and are instructed instead to build an altar out of earth, or perhaps out of stone. This is a very far cry from the opulent abundance of the mishkan, wherein every sort of fine material and precious substance is collected and shaped into a house of worship.
There is something discontinuous about the narrative, something doesn’t seem to flow, the mishkan does not seem to have been part of the original plan.
The Ramban goes to great lengths to emphasise how the mishkan was the natural continuation of the revelation at Sinai, after the exalted otherworldly nature of that moment, there was a need for something solid and concrete on earth, something to offer the people a lasting and stable reminder of God’s presence on earth.
The lengths he goes to suggest that he is not entirely convinced, we may start to suspect that the lady doth protest too much.
If it wasn’t part of the original plan, then we are faced with the puzzling question – what brought about the change in plan?
The obvious answer leaps out at us just a few chapters later, when we encounter the episode of the Golden Calf, the Chet Ha’Egel.
The parallels between the episodes are striking: the communal donations of gold, the offerings of sacrifices, the celebrations to dedicate the new form of worship. Looking more closely, we see that the lead designer is to be Bezalel, the grandson of Chur, who the midrash suggests was killed due to his resistance to the building of the Egel.
It makes good sense to suggest that the mishkan is a response to the building of the egel, a concession to the need for a more festive and physicalised form of religious worship. This was after all a people who had been surrounded by the various paganisms present in Egyptian society and who were perhaps not quite ready for the severe and august monotheism that Moses was trying to foist upon them.
But we are left with the troubling point? Why does the Torah tell us about the mishkan before the egel. And, also troubling, how did both God and Moses get the Israelites so wrong, how did they not see such a disaster coming?
Rashi offers a simple solution – ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah – the Torah does not always tell us things in chronological order, and in this instance it decided to tell us about the mishkan first. But, we might still ask, why should it do that? If it has left enough clues for us to figure it out, then why should it try to disguise the reality, and leave us with such a perplexing narrative.
The answer I think lies in the essential principle which underpins the mishkan. Rambam sees the mishkan as a concession to physical worship of sacrifices, and we might also think it is simply to do with having a sensory location for the sacred presence, both of which seem reasonable.
But I believe the more important principle is mentioned in the opening verses of our parsha. Moses is to take a teruma, a donation, ‘me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo’, from every individual according to the voluntary spirit of their heart. The mishkan is to be founded in the passion of the individual, it is to be rooted in the harnessing of their animal spirits, of their powerful preconscious drives, and is to channel them into a form of worship that will contain and symbolise these energies.
The original 10 commandments did not leave any room for this spirit, they were a deep and total prohibition of mankind’s most basic impulses. God adopts the same language he did with Adam in Genesis 2, where the harshness of the command made the ensuing sin almost inevitable. The Ten Commandments are about what we must not do, what we must stifle and suppress in ourselves – do not murder, steal or indulge your carnal appetites. Do not behave falsely and, while you’re at it, banish all traces of jealousy and envy.
When the people told Moses they couldn’t bear the word of God, it was not just the power and volume of the experience that repelled them, it was the absolute and unforgiving attitude to their nature. The commandments seemed to be cutting them off at their roots, leaving them no breathing space whatsoever, and this atmosphere of privation was too much for them to bear.
The people needed an outlet for their passion, for their visceral drives and aggressive impulses. The Golden Calf gave them such an outlet, but in spite of Aharon’s best efforts it was not an acceptable form of worship, it was too close to the Egyptian cults they had left behind.
The mishkan exists to give such an opportunity, and to ensure that the people have ample means of expression, are able to search their own spirits and find new and original ways of contributing to and shaping Divine Worship.
And this is perhaps the difference between religion and mere ethics. Ethics simply tells us what to do, or what we can’t do, religion takes a more sympathetic view of the human condition and gives structure and the possibility of redemption to the totality of the personality, to even the darkest forces that lurk in our soul.
After the flood God sees that man will always have evil lurking in his soul, and he realises that he needs Avraham to develop a religion capable of wrestling with that and transforming it.
If all of this is true, then it makes sense that we must be told of the mishkan before the chet ha’egel. If the narrative made it obvious that the mishkan was a correction for the chet then the lesson of the importance of the voluntary would ring very false, it would be hollow and unconvincing. A concession can never be convincing as an invitation to volunteer, the balance of power has been lost.
By putting the mishkan first, the Torah is subtly conceding that God got it wrong, but is suggesting that the corrective was close to hand, and that there somewhere existed the wisdom which knew that the Jews could not subsist on prohibition alone. The power and passion of the human being needed to be given expression through religious structure, and the mishkan gave them that opportunity in their time.
The idea that the mishkan is about our inner life, rather than about physical space is poetically expressed in the late 16th century by Rav Elazar Azkiri with his idea of ‘bilvavi mishkan evneh’. The aspiration is to build an internal mishkan in the midst of our heart, thereby giving structure and form to the necessary sacrifices we must make in the pursuit of a balanced and compassionate society. Through the pain and majesty of our relinquishing of egotistical drives the Glory of God becomes revealed in the world, and a sacred space of authentic beauty might come into being.
May we be blessed with strength in the face of these challenges, and may our building of the mishkan sanctify and redeem the totality of our unique personalities.
Elie is teaching this term on Faith after Freud at LSJS, and courses on Talmudic Narrative and God for Grown Ups at JW3.