Parshat Ki Tisa: How the construction of the Mishkan relates to our lives today

Parshat Ki Tisa: How does the detailed description of the construction of the Mishkan relate to our lives today?

We are all part of a large and important group to which each one of us contributes, in order to build a strong and cohesive society. But at the same time, each individual is an entire world. We are all supposed to bring our own personalities and initiatives to bear when we serve Hashem, both individually and communally.

Rabbanit Sally Mayer, Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program

At the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa, Hashem commands that the Jews are to be counted in a rather unique way – by levying a half-shekel from each person “to atone for your souls.” The Torah repeats the words “a contribution” three times when mentioning this commandment. Rashi explains, based on a Gemara in Tractate Megillah (page 29) that these are three different contributions. The first is a contribution of a half-shekel from each individual, which is used to prepare the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. The second is a half-shekel donation from each person, money which is used to purchase the communal offerings that will be made over the entire year, and the third is a contribution “from each man, according to what his heart desires.” In other words, everyone brings whatever he or she wishes, with no restrictions or definitions. What is the significance of these contributions? What does each one symbolize?

The modern-day equivalent of the service in the Mishkan is prayer. The Talmud in Tractate Brachot (page 26) mentions a famous dispute on the source from which we deduce that we must pray three times a day. Rabbi Yossi, the son of Rabbi Hanina, says that our forefathers instituted the prayers, while Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi maintains that prayers were instituted to parallel the daily burnt-offerings. What is the main difference between these two approaches, and what is the message of each one?

Rabbi Yossi quotes several verses to substantiate his claim that it was the forefathers that instituted prayer. Abraham instituted shacharit, the morning prayer, when he tried convincing Hashem not to eradicate Sodom. We find that Abraham had the courage to argue with the Creator of the World and bring about change through his prayers. His son, Isaac, instituted mincha, or the afternoon prayer, when waiting for the wife that Abraham’s servant had found for him. He went out to converse in the field, and prayed for an unknown future. Our third forefather, Jacob, prayed when he fled from his brother, Esau, who sought to kill him. He found a place in which to spend the night and prayed out of a feeling of intense fear, establishing the evening prayer of Arvit. Hashem calmed him by speaking to him through the famous dream of the ladder.

According to this approach, we learn that prayer at certain times of day is analogous with certain situations in a person’s life – confidence in the morning, when the sun is out; uncertainty at dusk; and fear at night, when darkness and confusion reign. Our forefathers’ institution of prayer reveals the personal side of prayer. They each pray in their own words, at a time of their choosing, at their own initiative, and out of a profound need that comes from within.

Conversely, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s method suggests that prayers were instituted parallel to the daily burnt-offerings, which were sacrificed in the morning and at dusk in the Mishkan and in the Beit Hamikdash. These offerings have their own permanent rules and a precise protocol used every day of the year, including the Sabbath and Yom Kippur. This method stresses the permanent facet of prayer – accuracy, observing a commandment, and following a uniform text and schedule every day.

The Gemara draws the conclusion that both of these sages were correct. The prayers were indeed instituted by the forefathers, but our sages linked these prayers to the sacrifices. Thus, we must pray every day, at set hours, and recite a set text – but we can also infuse these prayers with our own personal fears, hopes, sentiments, and aspirations.

Now let’s go back to the contributions to the Mishkan. What do these three contributions really mean?

They made the prayer sockets out of the first contribution. These were silver items that kept the posts of the Mishkan upright and stabilized it. In other words, the sockets constituted the base that propped up the Mishkan, and this was the contribution meant to establish the worship of Hashem through a single communal effort.

The second contribution was earmarked for public offerings made over the course of the year, and it was collected annually. This is why we read Parshat Shekalim every year – to remind us of the half-shekel that was levied between Purim and the first day of Nisan. This contribution is about how the Jews had all contributed equally to the offerings regularly made in the Mishkan day after day, and year after year. The third contribution received was one in accordance to the desires of each donor. This contribution signifies the personal and individual aspect of this act.

Thus, the contributions to the Mishkan remind us of our worship of Hashem in today’s day and age. Though we no longer have a Temple, we have our prayers, which are our way of worshiping Hashem regularly nowadays, and they are our way of turning to Hashem to make requests and give thanks. We are all part of a large and important group to which each one of us contributes, in order to build a strong and cohesive society. But at the same time, each individual is an entire world. We are all supposed to bring our own personalities and initiatives to bear when we serve Hashem, both individually and communally.

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