Parshat Tetzaveh: The True Contents of the Mishkan

The True Contents of the Mishkan

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC)

This week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, and last week’s parashah, Terumah, are often thought of as one unit. They are two parts of the same extended monologue of God commanding Moshe regarding the building of the Mishkan and everything in it. Both have long lists of materials, items to be made, and instructions regarding construction.

Parashat Terumah, after listing the materials that were collected for the entire project, discusses the construction of the Ark, table, Menorah, and the structure of the Mishkan building itself, i.e. the wooden beams for walls, curtains, and roof.

Tetzaveh includes the instructions for lighting the Menorah, crafting the clothing for the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol, the consecration of the Kohanim themselves, the daily Tamid offering, the Golden Altar, and the incense.

It seems at first glance that the division between the two parshiot is only a matter of convenience. Terumah contains ninety-six verses. Tetzaveh contains one hundred one verses. It would seem, then, that this is really one long section divided, more or less, in half.

Despite the aforementioned commonalities between Terumah and Tetzaveh, there is one distinction between the parshiot that points us in a very different direction.

The opening line of Parashat Terumah states the most commonly repeated line in the Torah. “And God spoke to Moshe saying.” This line of narration is then followed by the uninterrupted monologue of approximately two hundred verses that follows. We then see the same line repeated at the opening of Parashat Ki Tisa, beginning a new monologue of commandments from God to Moshe. After this introductory verse at the beginning of Parashat Terumah, there in not a single mention of the name of God in that entire parasha. In stark contrast, God’s name is mentioned twenty-four times in Parashat Tetzaveh.

Why is God’s name absent from the commands in Terumah, but repeatedly mentioned in Tetzaveh?

As we mentioned, Parashat Terumah deals with the construction of the structure of the Mishkan, i.e. the building itself, walls, roof, and curtains. Parashat Tetzaveh, on the other hand, deals with the clothing of the Kohanim, the people who serve in the Mishkan, and the ongoing service, day in and day out – the daily Tamid offering, the offering of incense, and the lighting of the Menorah.

I’d like to suggest that the contrast in mentions of God’s name between these two sets of instructions teaches us an important lesson. People have a tendency to see holy buildings as having inherent holiness, as being ends in and of themselves. They view the synagogue as the place where God and religion reside. There are those who care for their synagogue as an institution while neglecting to participate in the ongoing services that take place there.

Perhaps, the Torah is telling us that such an attitude about the buildings in which we worship is incorrect. While we certainly believe in the concept of kedushat mikdash and kedushat beit knesset, the sanctity of the Temple and the sanctity of the synagogue, this sanctity is due only to the worship that takes place there. God’s presence does not reside in the building – the wooden beams and curtains – but in the worship of God that takes place there. Without service of God, the beams and curtains are devoid of God’s presence.

The Talmud teaches, “When the Holy One blessed is He comes to a synagogue and does not find ten men, He is immediately angered.” (Brachot 6) Rav A.Y. Kook explains that the existence of a synagogue itself is valuable. It is a sign of honor to God. However, the presence of a synagogue in a community with no minyan shows that while they have some measure of respect for God, the community does not enable God’s will to permeate their day to day lives. In the words of Rav Kook, “such a synagogue that is built is not desirable for Him, because the foundation of service of God is the direction of the way of life according to His will.” The daily synagogue service, like the Tamid, incense, and the Menorah in the Mishkan, is what brings God into our consciousness on a perpetual basis.

The chapters commanding the construction of the Mishkan open by saying, “And they shall make for Me a Mishkan, and I shall dwell among them.” The verse does not say “… and I shall dwell in it” referring to the Mishkan, but “… and I shall dwell among them” referring to the people themselves. God does not need or want a building. He wants the service within the building as a way for us to bring His presence into our lives.

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