For Parashat Tetzave
Mishkan Sweet Mishkan
What can the Mishkan be analogized to? When I present this question at a class, the first, intuitive answer, is that the Mishkan resembles a home, and the second, which comes after a minute of contemplation, is the Garden of Eden. Like a home, the Mishkan has a table, a candelabra, a place for preparing food, and private chambers. The word Mishkan is derived from the root שכנ – to dwell, which is also the root of the Hebrew word for neighbor – שכן.
This analogy is sometimes understood as alluding that our homes should emulate the Temple, but Nahmanides offers an opposite energy flow. In his introduction to Shemot he presents his theory that the life of Israel in Egypt is a replay of what happened to the forefathers, only at a grander scale. The Book of Genesis, says Nahmanides, is the book of individuals – ספר היחידים, while the Book of Exodus is the book of the nation – ספר האומה. The Israelites, as a nation, retrace the footsteps of their forefathers until they reach perfection:
הגלות איננו נשלם עד יום שובם אל מקומם ואל מעלת אבותם ישובו… וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן, ושב הקדוש ברוך הוא והשרה שכינתו ביניהם, אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם שהיה סוד אלוה עלי אהליהם, והם הם המרכבה, ואז נחשבו גאולים. ולכן נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן ובהיות כבוד ה’ מלא אותו תמיד
The exile is not over until they reclaim their place, at the same level of their forefathers… when they came to Mount Sinai, and built the Mishkan, the Divine Providence dwelt among them. Then they returned to the level of their forefathers, in whose tents God was present, and who themselves were the Divine Throne. With that, the Israelites were fully redeemed and that is why this book concludes with the construction of the Mishkan and with the constant presence of God in it.
Nahmanides, writing more then a thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, provides hope and encouragement to a nation of exiles. You may pray and wish for the reconstruction of the Temple, but you should know that the real temple is you, your home, your family. Nahmanides doesn’t say that our homes emulate the Mishkan but rather that the Mishkan is a replica of the home. The life of ancient Israel, despite the impression one might have from a cursory reading of the Tanakh, did not revolve around the Temple. As an agrarian society, people were working in the fields most of the time and would visit the Temple only three times a year. The Mishkan resembled a home to tell them that they could bring sanctity into their homes every day. The true Temple is our home, where we invest in sanctity, mutual respect, intimacy, and loving kindness. We can also be the throne of the divine, because adhering to the behavior code and discipline of the Torah help us elevate ourselves, become better people, and develop a connection with God.
Mishkan as Gan Eden
The Mishkan also takes us back to the creation of the world and to the Garden of Eden. The connection to creation is beautifully presented in Proverbs (3:19-20), a book which in some ways is a commentary on Genesis:
יְיָ בְּחָכְמָ֥ה יָֽסַד־אָ֑רֶץ כּוֹנֵ֥ן שָׁ֝מַ֗יִם בִּתְבוּנָֽה, בְּ֭דַעְתּוֹ תְּהוֹמ֣וֹת נִבְקָ֑עוּ
YHWH through wisdom founded earth, set heavens firm through discernment, through His knowledge the deeps burst open…
These verses tie the knot between the story of creation, represented by the earth, heavens, and deeps, or abyss, and between the construction of the Mishkan, built by Betzalel, of whom we read (Ex. 35:31):
וַיְמַלֵּ֥א אֹת֖וֹ ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֑ים בְּחָכְמָ֛ה בִּתְבוּנָ֥ה וּבְדַ֖עַת וּבְכָל־מְלָאכָֽה
He [God] imbued him [Betzalel] with the spirit of God, with wisdom, discernment, and knowledge, and with all crafts.
Betzalel’s qualities, granted by God, circle us back to creation as they are being framed between the Spirit of God, which appears in the opening verses of Genesis, and the word מלאכה, which is found in the last passage of the story: כי בו שבת מכל מלאכתו אשר ברא אלהים לעשות
But the analogy is not only textual, it is visual as well. The Garden of Eden was surrounded by four rivers, and the Mishkan by four walls. In the Garden of Eden lurked the serpent and coiling within the walls of the Mishkan is the central bolt, or in Hebrew בריח. This word appears dozens of times in Tanakh in the sense of bolt, with two exceptions. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Job, which teems with allusions to the story of creation, verse 13 speaks of נחש בריח, as does Isaiah (27:1). Whatever is the reason for the association of serpents with bolts, there is a symbolic presence of the serpent in the Mishkan.
And just as it was in the Garden of Eden, the remedy for the serpent’s lure and threat is the Torah. In the Garden it was the Tree of Life, guarded by the Cherubim, and in the Mishkan, it is the Torah, also called Tree of Life, in the Ark guarded by the Cherubim. The Tree of Life is physically inaccessible in both places, but after the Torah was given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, it is always available in spirit, heart, and mind.
Where is the Torah called Tree of Life? In Proverbs 3:18: עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה.
What is the following verse? The one quoted above: יי בחכמה יסד ארץ.
The picture is now complete and all the pieces match. The Mishkan is an analogy to the home and to the Garden of Eden. This triple connection conveys a powerful message. Our home, our family, can be the Garden of Eden and the Tabernacle for the Divine Providence. If we place those three on a time-continuum, we could say that the Mishkan is our past, our home is our present, and the Garden of Eden is waiting in the future. If we focus on what we had in the past and what we want to achieve in the future, and if we remember that the Tree of Life, the Ark, can be found in the intimacy of our home, we could turn our lives in the present into an experience which resembles heaven.