The Meaning of the Mishkan

This is the time of the year when I generally start to see glazed-over eyes during the Torah reading.  For some reason, the Tabernacle, or mishkan, is not the most exciting topic for many, including me.  It seems so remote from our lives, and while an engineer or carpenter might find the details, dimensions and blueprints fascinating, others of us struggle while reading them.  Why so much detail as to each of the items in the Tabernacle?

Parshat Terumah begins by detailing the gifts: precious metals, animal skins and spices that the Israelites must give for the building of this sacred place. The first item described is an ark out of acacia wood, which was known to be a strong, durable form of wood. The ark needed to be overlaid with gold, have a cover made out of gold and have two cherubim angels-one overhanging it at each end. The ark would contain the Ten Commandments, given to Israel directly from G-d at Sinai. Our portion goes on to describe the table, altar, lampstand, curtain and the actual Tabernacle construction itself and its surrounding courtyard.

Why do we spend four or five weeks each and every year reading through this blueprint of our ancestors’ first sacred home for G-d? I would argue that we need to step back in time to the 1960s, when our sacred home, the Jericho Jewish Center, was first created. The first term used to describe the Tabernacle is not mishkan, or dwelling place, but rather mikdash, or sacred place.[1] The goal was to construct a place so ornate, so beautiful, so special, that it would be an appropriate home for G-d to dwell and to for G-d’s Shechinah, the most earthly part of the Divine, to descend from the heavens and rest here on earth. This was not some ordinary building but rather a place fit for the Master of the Universe to reside.

Each synagogue today is considered a mikdash m’at, a miniature sacred place. This does not mean that each synagogue is considered small in size or stature, rather that it contains a small portion of the sanctity and reverence  that was present in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. When both the First and Second Temples were destroyed and our people were scattered throughout the world, we needed a place to go to for connection with G-d, not to replace our holy site but as a substitute for the time we are in exile. Prayer replaced sacrifice as our primary means of communication with G-d and the local synagogue replaced the Temple as G-d’s home, the closest we could get to reaching G-d while here on earth.

We see clear evidence of this when comparing the construction of the Tabernacle to that of our synagogue. We have our Ark which like that of our ancestors holds our most sacred texts. Also, as in our portion we have two coverings for our ark: the kaporet, represented by our ark doors, and the parochet, the curtain inside the ark. In addition, we have a symbolic representation of both the Menorah and the Ner Tamid, an eternal light forever radiating G-d’s presence.

Finally I want to compare the Tabernacle to our Sanctuary. I want you to put yourselves in the mindset of those from your parents and grandparents’ generation who build this room in 1960. What steps do you think they took in constructing this sacred building which we call our spiritual home? How many hours were spent constructing blueprints and diagrams, making sure the layout was perfect? How do you think they felt in all the time from the first planning meeting in someone’s house to the groundbreaking ceremony upon construction of the building to the dedication of the Sanctuary? I imagine it was similar to what we experience every year in reading the Torah portions from Terumah all the way through VaYakhel-Pekudei.

I find it fascinating that our synagogue iconography is modeled after the Tabernacle. As we continue to read through the Torah in this month of March, let us take the opportunity to look deep into the messages of the portions and their significance in our lives.  When our eyes start to glaze over, let us notice something in our beautiful house of worship and may we connect it to the lore and the example of our ancestors, always asking ourselves “What does this mean?” and “How does this relate?”  Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Exodus 25:18

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