Friday, February 8, 2008

A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures

In this week's parsha, God commands us to build Him a home, a sanctuary called the Mishkan. What a strange mitzvah! Why on earth does God need a home? Are the desert nights getting cold? The whole idea of a house for God is ridiculous. As the Midrash says, “When God said, 'Build a sanctuary for Me,' Moshe countered, 'But the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You! (I Kings 8:27)'” (Bamidbar Rabba 12:3).

Rabbi Chaim Volozhner (1749-1821) explains what it’s all about:

God is saying the following: "Let no one make the mistake of thinking that My intent in the construction of the sanctuary is about the physical building itself. Not at all. Rather, you should know that the sole objective of the Mishkan and its furniture is to indicate to you to learn from it and model yourselves after it. Your own behavior should be as wonderful as the Mishkan and its furniture, completely holy and worthy of the Divine Presence." This is the meaning of the verse, "They shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them..." (Shemot 25:8).

Nefesh HaChaim 1:4

The Mishkan is merely a model. When a Jew experienced the power of the Shechina’s presence in the Mishkan, he said to himself, “If God can enter this building, He must certainly be able to enter me.” God is prepared to rest His divine presence within us, but we must first develop ourselves into living sanctuaries. If we build it, He will come.

It would serve us well to take a closer look at how the Mishkan was constructed. If we are to model our own inner sanctuaries after the Mishkan, we obviously need to study the blueprints. Unfortunately, there are none. The Torah provides no diagrams, no illustrations, not even a sketch. The entire Mishkan is described only in words. Many words.

The parsha describes the Mishkan and its furniture in mind-numbing detail. From materials and dimensions to artistic flourishes and color, virtually every aspect of the design is mandated. Intricate tapestries woven with yarn blended from three kinds of wool and one kind of linen; decorative cups, spheres and flowers; cherubs with their wings just so; plated beams and crossbars; silver sockets; golden hooks, the list goes on and on. The parsha is ninety-six verses long (not bad, as parshiot go), but without question, one picture would have saved our people many tons of ink and parchment through the years. As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words. Today, architects and designers use drawings to communicate their ideas. Why does the Torah insist on using words when a simple sketch would do?

You can’t be serious, you say. God speaks; He doesn’t use PowerPoint! However, the truth is, God did use images to communicate the Mishkan’s design. The Torah says as much quite explicitly:

You shall set up the Mishkan in the proper manner, as you were shown on the mountain [of Sinai]…

Shemot 26:30; cf. 25:9,40; 27:8

Now, if God showed Moshe a model of the Mishkan up on Sinai, why wasn’t that image incorporated into the Torah? If that question doesn’t trouble you, this one will: Why bother with all the words at all? After all, when it came down to it, it was the images in Moshe’s head that guided construction, not the Torah’s words.

“It was on the day that Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan…” – Betzalel and Oheliav and all the artisans made the Mishkan (cf. Shemot 36:1), and the Torah credits Moshe?! It is because he devoted himself to observe the forms of every item the way he was shown on Mt. [Sinai], in order to instruct those who constructed it. He didn’t make a mistake on any form.

Rashi to Bamidbar 7:1; Tanchuma 13

If the final arbiter of the Mishkan’s design was not the verses of the Torah, but the image that God showed Moshe on Sinai, why does the Torah even attempt to spell it all out? We have the perfect precedent in the mitzvah of Tefillin. When it comes to Tefillin, the Torah gives us just a few vague words. “Bind it as a sign on your hand and let them be totafot between your eyes” (Devarim 6:8; cf. Shemot 13:9). “Totafot”? What is it made of? What should it look like? The Torah does not say; it relies on the image God showed Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and to this very day, there is no debate about what Tefillin are. Why didn’t the Torah treat the Mishkan the same way? God could have simply said “Build Me a sanctuary” and relied on Moshe to relay the details. Why all the words? Before we can answer this question, we need to take a brief detour.

Everybody knows there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Sounds like a lot, but the Gaon of Vilna (R. Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) argues that this popular Talmudic tradition is actually an understatement. Are we to believe that from Bereishit all the way to parshat Bo there are no more than three mitzvot? Some parshiot have none at all. Have they nothing to say?

The Vilna Gaon teaches that every single word of the Torah is actually its own mitzvah. 613 may be the number of primary mitzvot, but each one branches out into many, many more, covering every aspect of life. On some level, all of human behavior can potentially become “mitzvah.” The formula is simple: Whatever you do, if you do it right, you fulfill God’s will. A sensitive reading of the Torah teaches us how.

When the Mishkan’s parts were complete and it was time to put it all together, the Torah stresses how each component was put in place “as God commanded Moshe.” In fact, the Torah repeats that description every step of the way:

“It was in the first month of the second year on the first of the month that the Mishkan was erected. Moshe erected the Mishkan… as G-d had commanded Moshe.
“He brought the Ark into the Mishkan… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He put the Table in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He placed the Menorah in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He placed the Gold Altar in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe…”

Shemot 40:17-32

And so on. The Torah is not just being verbose; it is making a critical point. Every single act in the construction of the Mishkan was its own mitzvah. God didn’t just hand them a diagram and say, “Build this.” That would be only one mitzvah. Instead, God spelled out every stage of construction as an independent command, making each act an independent fulfillment of God’s will. Only with a constant stream of mitzvot can God’s sanctuary be built.

People are no different. If we want God’s presence to rest within us, we need to create a space where God can be comfortable. This is the mission of the Jew: to sanctify the mundane, to elevate all of life into mitzvah, and ultimately become a living, breathing Mishkan.

Yes, God does desire a house on earth - a house of flesh and blood.

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