The most important structure built in the desert was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. A nation that was used to worshipping God in no particular place or specific sanctuary, is suddenly instructed to converge into one place of worship – albeit a wandering structure – that contains the holy items and is designated for sacred service.
However, this prominent structure would not have existed if it weren’t for the donations and contributions offered by the People of Israel. And, indeed, our portion opens with the words:
“And Hashem spoke unto Moshe, saying. Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.” (Shemot 25:1-2)
Both the act of giving a donation, as well as the act of building the Mishkan are ostensibly voluntary, i.e. based on one’s free will. And yet, God gives a direct commandment to do both. One might go so far as to say that the latter is contingent upon the former. In other words, the Mishkan cannot come into existence without donations. And yet this wasn’t a congregation of philanthropists that was ordered to build the Mishkan. Rather, it was a nomadic people wandering through the desert. Still, every single person had to offer a contribution.
It follows then that this the Mishkan was literally built by the people. Some gave more, some gave less – but all had a part in the Mishkan.
Midrash Rabbah on Shemot (33:8) says: “When the Holy One blessed be He told Moshe about the matters pertaining to the Mishkan, he said before Him: ‘Master of the universe, is Israel capable of crafting it?’ The Holy One blessed be He said to him: ‘Even one member of Israel is capable of crafting it.’”
From the various interpretations on this portion, and all the more so from the detailed description of the building of the Mishkan rendered by the Torah itself, it is clear that there is a direct call to the people to become partners in the making of this sacred structure. Consequently, the Mishkan belongs to all, irrespective of position in society or importance.
The Abarbanel, in his exegesis on Shemot 25:10, says: “The Mishkan is one example of a place built entirely upon the willingness of the heart. The reason for this being that the Mishkan was built to reflect the whole of the Cosmos, as is written ‘And they shall build for me a Mishkan, so that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the Mishkan, and the pattern of all the vessels within, even so shall you make it’, as previously explained. Hence, God commanded that the Mishkan be made of the donations offered out of pure goodwill, not by force nor coercion, but out of a sincere desire to give. In this very manner, the Cosmos, too, was created: by God’s willingness to create it with His great kindness and benevolence, and not by any form of compulsion as some philosophers wish us to believe. Accordingly, emphasis is placed on the manner in which the action [of the building the Mishkan] must be carried out. As is written in Tehillim (89): ‘The world is built upon kindness’.”
It follows then that an important lesson is taught us pertaining to the building of the Mishkan: without a joint effort and a sincere partnership, the Mishkan cannot come to be. This is not a superficial partnership, but one founded upon chessed, loving kindness, and the sincere desire to give. Without this inner desire, there cannot be a true worship of God.
The donations made towards the building of the Mishkan, were not just contributions per se. Rather, they are described by the Torah as “willingness of the heart”. Put more simply, this would mean that the donor feels a deep spiritual connection to the Mishkan; his or her heart is deeply connected and engaged. This is also in keeping with the fact that the Hebrew roots for “bring”, “offer”, “desire” are mentioned time and time again in our portion.
Moreover, the emphasis on the Hebrew word for “heart” [“yideveno libo“] clearly expresses the sincere nature of the contributions offered. These were not contributions made by force, but voluntary acts of kindness stemming from a real desire to take a part in the building of the Mishkan, which is a structure made by man for God’s Shechina, His Divine Presence, to dwell therein. The latter is only made possible if the people building this dwelling place for God feel a true spiritual connection to it. The verse which conveys this notion best of all, reads thus:
“And they shall build for me a Mishkan, so that I may dwell in their midst.” (ibid. 25:8).
The Kuzari (part III, essay 23, translated by Yehuda Ibn Tibon) explains that two conditions must exist for the Divine Presence to dwell within the Mishkan. The first is the fulfillment of all the commandments pertaining to the building of the Mishkan, down to their finest details. The second is the principle which states that “God desires the heart”, which means to say that what is required for the building of the Mishkan and for the Shechina to rest upon it is the “willingness of the heart” of the People of Israel.
The Kuzari also points out that the People of Israel’s desire by choice to contribute to the building of the Mishkan is of extreme significance. For the Shechinah to dwell in the midst of the nation, the People’s inner devotion is crucial. Without this, the Mishkan will be void of Shechinah which will defeat its ultimate purpose.
Moreover, the vessels of the Mishkan and the materials of which it is built are rendered meaningless if there is no desire or intent on the part of the people.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk phrased it thus: “Where can one find God? Wherever you let Him in.”
We might then ask: What is the significance of this connection between man and his Creator? Must the connection be absolute and unwavering, or might even a looser bond suffice to connect one to God?
The Malbim on Shemot 25:8 writes: “And He commanded us saying ‘and so you [plural form] shall do’ to teach us that each and everyone must build a sanctuary inside his own heart, by preparing himself to be a dwelling place for God and His Shechinah… and prepare an altar upon which he would be willing to sacrifice every part of his soul to God, so much so that he would be willing to sacrifice himself entirely for the glory of God at any moment.”
The Malbim’s interpretation highlights the importance of building a Mikdash, a sanctuary for God, in one’s own heart as well.
Our mission, then, is to bring down the Shechinah to our mundane world, and to create an ongoing dialog between the individual and the Shechinah.
How can this be achieved? Maintaining high moral values, engaging in social justice, displaying mutual trust and love for others – these are the things that can connect mankind to the Shechinah. In a world in which people live by such values, purity prevails, and God desires to establish His abode therein.
An educational question that has always concerned me is whether spiritual connection is something we should demand, or whether this should be left to choice, such that those who take part [in maintaining the spiritual connection with God] are only those who possess that “willingness of heart”.
My personal educational doctrine contends that even those who do not feel fully connected but still wish to take some part in the great partnership between Man and God have a place in the Mishkan. In fact, not only do such unconnected or semi-connected individuals have a place in the Mishkan, but the Mishkan is specifically intended for them as well. I will go so far as to say that perhaps the Mishkan needs all types of people to become truly whole.
During this current war we have been witness to deep connections that exist between soldiers with very different worldviews. This is because their shared destiny and joint mission created one single Mishkan within them.
Our soldiers, who come from every walk of life and represent every sector of Israeli society, are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder as one people. They have taught us that loss and pain spare no one, and it is because of our shared destiny that disputes must be set aside at this time. Through their extraordinary bravery of spirit and willingness to sacrifice their very lives, our soldiers have exemplified the very essence of the Mishkan, as mentioned above: Every individual must take part in the building of the Mishkan. Taking this notion to our own times, only when every single person contributes can our State continue to exist.
Indeed, reality has shown us that with true partnership and generosity of the heart, we can prevail and be victorious, because the Mishkan which belongs to all, is part of our shared destiny. Moreover, the desire to give and forge a true partnership leads to the Shechina dwelling in our midst.
As we say in our prayers daily: “Hamachazir shechinato LeTziyon, may He bring back His Shechinah to Zion.”