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The Meaning of the Tabernacle

Richard Harvester’s superb post on the Idiot’s Guy to the Tabernacle inspired me. He asks a basic question: what is it about the Tabernacle that allows G-d to live among us? His answer is really fascinating, but I like even simpler explanations.

There is a principle that there are seventy faces to the Torah, which is another way of saying that there can be different – yet still acceptable – explanations of the same verses or metaphors. One plausible answer does not necessarily invalidate others. So watch his video. And then think of this post as another way of looking at it.

The Tabernacle has 4 primary components: the Menorah, the Altar, the Show-bread, and the Ark. I believe they represent the four forms of holiness, of connection to G-d.

1: Menorah: Burning bush (the first time holiness is named), light (of every kind).

2: Altar: Appreciation man shows to G-d, connecting heaven and earth. Elevation of the physical into the spiritual plane.

3: Show-bread: Partnership between man and G-d in sustaining life, and in creating new things.

4: Ark: Housing the tablets, covered by a male-and-female angel, showing the love between man and G-d, as man and woman.

(All the rest of the aspects of the tabernacle fit nicely within this framework.)

To the extent that we internalize these aspects of holiness (Light, Elevation, Partnership/Creation, and Love), G-d dwells within us.

This view of the Tabernacle is that it, like the Torah, is not descriptive: it is prescriptive. We are to make our lives into lights, elevating ourselves and the world around us, and partnering with G-d in creating new things to sustain life. If we do those things, then in the Holy-of-Holies, we are able to properly and fully love G-d and each other.

And here is the slightly more-detailed version of the above, with help from #2 son!

The Torah obsesses about the persnickety details of the tabernacle, which is a temporary structure (although it is later made permanent in the Temple). Why?

The tabernacle has four distinct items in it, all of which have significant meaning. The Menorah, the Table, Altars, and the Ark.

The Menorah, an all-gold candelabra, which, when it is described in the Torah in botanical terms, is related to the burning bush. Both have arms, bulbs, and burns without being consumed. The burning bush itself was first used to attract Moses’ attention – shining spiritual light to help a person find the right path, a path to a spot that G-d calls “holy”. “And God saw the light, that it was good” (Gen. 1:4). Light, created on the first day, was the first thing G-d makes that he calls “good”. Light, contrasted with darkness, represents intellect, and wisdom and knowledge and even beauty. Jews are called to be a “Light Unto the Nations.”

The table holds bread and very elaborate bread at that. Bread is hard to make: from plowing to sowing to weeding to harvesting, to all the steps required to make a decent flour before we can craft it into the bread. The entire process is a marriage of the natural world that G-d created, and mankind’s labors. The “showbreads” are a showcase of what people can craft the world into, improving upon its raw and muddy nature, making it sprout forth, to be carved into incredible things. This is the work of partnering to complete the creation of the world. Then, too, making bread, of course, represents sustaining and growing life.

The altars are bridges, where we elevate kosher animals or the finest products of the earth, and connect them up heaven. Quite simply, we have an obligation to turn every mundane thing in our lives into something special and holy. Every action we take can be holy. The altar, pioneered by Noach after he left the Ark, also is the most direct way man shows gratitude to G-d, by giving up what we have earned. As I wrote previously,

After the Flood, Noah offers sacrifices to G-d (Gen. 8:20). In return, there are 17 verses (17 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “good”) of blessings from G-d. Why? Because Noah had done something incredible: he showed his appreciation. More than this: he survived the destruction of the world, and he chose to say “thank you”! When we take the time and make the effort to be grateful even for things that are, on their face, simply awful, our blessings multiply. Gratitude is the option that is always available to us, even in the face of despair.

Connecting heaven and earth also works to heal the breach between the first thing in the Torah that is not called good: the separation between the waters above and below. This, too, is what we are here for: healing the separations which ail the world.

In the Holy of Holies stands the most intimate and valued part of the tabernacle: the Ark. The Aharon has two angels on the top, a male and a female reaching for each other, along with a few tokens of G-d’s love and the Torah on the inside. The Ark shows the relationships we are supposed to build between man and woman, which is the model for another relationship, man to G-d.

In a sense the Ark (and the love embodied in it) are the result of a life devoted to the other aspects of holiness, in the same way that happiness is not something one achieves by directly seeking it, but is rather the byproduct of a life well spent. Judaism does not believe that there are shortcuts to this kind of love: one must actively choose to engage in spiritual growth in order to enjoy the resulting relationship with G-d.

Each of the parts of the Tabernacle are assigned dimensions, measurements of how tall and wide they are supposed to be. But of all of these components, only the Ark is comprised only of partial measurements (e.g. half a cubit) – not a single measurement is described as a whole, or complete cubit. I think this suggests the Torah is telling us that while one may fulfill our technical obligations as Jews by doing something specific, the commandment to love G-d (and each other) is always a process and not a product. For as long as we live, we can work on it, and strive, and grow. We should never consider ourselves as having completely reached our potential to love; we can, and should, always do more.

Comments are welcome!

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