The Binding of the Mishkan’s Curtains, Solidarity and Unconditional Love
Rabbanit Devorah Evron is the Director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)
Parshat Terumah is the first portion that deals with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that will escort the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the desert and will later be built in Shilo, after the Israelites enter the Land of Israel and conquer it.
In both the portion of Terumah and of Tetzaveh, God instructs Moshe how to build the Mishkan, its vessels and the special garments worn by the Kohanim. The Mishkan, its vessels and the special garments were made from gifts donated by the People of Israel: silver and gold; precious stones; expensive cloths and animal skins; oils and fragrant herbs. Literally everything that was needed for the building of the Mishkan and its daily functions was donated by the people.
Interestingly, our portion opens with a call to the people to offer gifts, and only later are we told what these voluntary donations will actually be used for. The usual order of things is that the donor is first told why a donation is needed, what the precise plans are, which project needs funding. Only once the details are divulged is a request made for a donation. Here the order is reversed.
I think the reason for this is that the Torah wishes to convey the message that the People of Israel and their desire to adhere to God’s words and connect with Him is what is paramount here; the Mishkan is the means to reinforce this connection. This notion is clearly expressed in the following verse in our portion: “And let them make Me a sanctuary (Mishkan) that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25, 8). By means of this Mishkan, God will dwell among the People of Israel.
Later in the parsha, we are given the explicit instructions for the construction of the Mishkan itself. The Mishkan was made of wooden beams, which constituted the core structure, and this, in turn, was covered by ten cloth curtains, sewn one to another. To be more precise, the ten cloth curtains were initially divided into two groups of five curtains, each of which was sewn one to the other. The larger curtain sheets, comprised of five cloth curtains each, were then bound together by means of loops, in such manner that they formed one very big curtain sheet. The way these cloth curtains were attached is described in the following way: “Five curtains shall be coupled together one to another; and the other five curtains shall be coupled one to another” (Shemot 26, 3).
The phrase used by the Torah to express “one to another” – isha el achota [literally: “one woman to her sister”] – is curious. True enough, the Hebrew word for “curtain” [yeri’ah] takes the feminine form; however, in the portion of Vayakhel, when the construction of the Mishkan is recounted, the Torah uses a different choice of words: “And he coupled five curtains achat el achat [“one to another”]; and the other five curtains he coupled achat el achat [“one to another”]. As can be seen, this time the phrase “one to another” takes the common Hebrew form of achat el achat (Shemot 36, 10).
There seems to be no good reason for the fact that when God instructs Moshe to build the Mishkan, He uses the unusual turn of phrase “isha el achota” and not the usual “achat el achat“. Furthermore, even in our portion of Terumah, where this unique expression is used, Onkelos translates “chada im chada” in Aramaic, which is the literal equivalent of achat el achat.
The lingual difference between the initial description of how the Mishkan should be built and the later description of its actual construction did not go unnoticed by the exegetes, and some even tried to explain the personification of the cloth curtains – “isha el achota“, one woman bound to her sister. What is there in this bond between a woman and her sister that might shed some light on the way the cloth curtains of the Mishkan were bound one to another?
The Seforno, an Italian exegete of the 16th Century, explains that upon the curtains there were segments of illustrations. Each curtain had to be bound to the next curtain with great precision so that the illustrations would connect seamlessly and produce the complete decorative illustration.
In keeping with the Seforno, the Netziv of Volozhin (19th Century) explains in his exegesis on the Torah titled Ha’amek Davar that the expression used to describe how the separate cloth curtains were joined together – “one woman [bound] to her sister” – teaches us that the curtains faced each other like two sisters. Furthermore, each curtain piece minimized itself for the sake of the other, much like two sisters, each of whom tries to take up less space so that her sister will have more.
The expression “isha el achota” appears in only one other place in the Torah – in the book of Vayikra, where the Torah talks of the prohibition to marry two sisters: “And thou shall not take a woman to her sister [ve’isha el achota lo tikach], to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her lifetime” (Vayikra 18, 18). The Ribash [Rabi Yitzhak ben Sheshet], one of the Ba’alei HaTosafot who lived in France in the 12th Century, offers the following explanation: One is not allowed to marry two sisters because sisters love each other and are bound to each other, and if they marry the same man it might lead to animosity and hatred between them. The Ramban, too, gives a similar explanation.
From numerous exegetes we come to learn that the phrase “isha el achota” describes two women, two sisters, who are extremely close and loving. Both women face each other and are in tune with each other, knowing perfectly how to form a seamless flow between them; giving the other the room needed for her growth; each knowing how to minimize herself for the sake of the other.
All the above are the very traits and values most suitable for the dwelling place of God Himself – the Mishkan.
The above notion brings to mind the well-known story relating to the issue of where to build the Beit HaMikdash. The story is told that many years before the Temple was built, there lived two brothers who owned a farm. For many a year, the two brothers toiled the land together, and there was love and companionship between them. Then came the day when one of the brothers took a wife, and so the brothers divided up the farm between them. The brother who got married built a new home for himself on the other side of the property, while the unmarried brother continued to live on his own in the old farm house. Each of the brothers continued to work their respective fields, and both prospered. Years passed and the married brother bore 10 children, while the other brother had not yet found his other half and so remained alone.
And one night, the unmarried brother thought to himself: “I have a big field that gives good produce, but I use it for myself alone, while my brother has to feed a large family.” With this thought in mind, he got up in the middle of the night, went out into the barn, gathered a few sheaves of wheat and made his way up the hill that separated his field from that of his brother’s and left the sheaves in the field belonging to the married brother.
That very same night, the married brother pondered to himself: “I have ten children and a lovely wife. My life is rich and full. But my brother is all alone.” And so, in the wee hours, he, too, got up and made his way to his barn and took a few sheaves of wheat. Then he climbed up the very same hill and left the sheaves in his brother’s field…
Every night, the two brothers would walk back and forth. Every night, each would climb up the hill, cross over into his brother’s field, and leave more sheaves of wheat. Every morning the brothers would wonder to themselves how it was possible that their respective heaps of wheat were getting no smaller.
On one of the nights, while both were making their way towards the other’s field, bundles in hand, the two brothers met at the top of the hill. They immediately realized what had happened, and fell into each other’s arms, crying and hugging and kissing. This hilltop, the Midrash tells us, is the spot upon which the Holy Temple was built.
The Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash, both of which are an expression of the Divine presence within the People of Israel, can only be built upon the foundations of deep, unconditional love, solidarity and true companionship among all the People of Israel.