The Mishkan and the Vessels

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Construction of the Vessels Before Construction of the Mishkan
And Moshe said to Bnei Yisrael: See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel son of Uri son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda, and He has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, and to contrive works of art, to work in gold and in silver and in brass, and in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make all manner of artistic work. And He has put in his heart that he may teach – both he and Aholiav son of Achisamakh, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with wisdom of heart, to do all manner of work – of the engraver, and of the craftsman… (Shemot 35:30-35)
The Torah describes the great wisdom of Betzalel, as expressed in his abilities both in planning and in execution. Chazal describe another aspect of Betzalel’s wisdom:
Betzalel was so named because of his wisdom. When the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moshe, “Go, say to Betzalel: Make me a Mishkan, an ark, and vessels,” Moshe went to him and said, “Make an ark, and vessels, and a Mishkan.” Betzalel then said to him, “Moshe, our teacher – the general rule is that a person builds a house, and only afterwards does he bring vessels into it. Why, then, do you say: Make an ark, and vessels, and a Mishkan? If I make the vessels first, where will I put them? Perhaps God told you: Make a Mishkan, an ark, and vessels?” Upon which Moshe declared, “Perhaps you were in the shadow of God [be-tzel El], and you knew!” (Berakhot 55a)
Why, in fact, did Moshe command Betzalel first to build the vessels and only afterwards the Mishkan? This question in fact has two components.
First, in terms of simple logic, it is clear that Betzalel is correct. Would a person first buy furniture and only then look for a home in which to put it?
Second, even if Moshe believed, for whatever reason, that it would be better first to build the vessels, how could he change the order on his own initiative, after God had told him first to build the Mishkan? Although the gemara in Shabbat (87a) lists three occasions when Moshe indeed took the initiative and God afterwards approved what he had done, the gemara offers convincing arguments in favor of Moshe’s decision in each instance. Let us examine whether an equally compelling explanation is to be found in our case.
To gain a better understanding of Moshe’s reversal of the order of the work-plan, let us consider what Ramban writes in Parashat Teruma:
The main point of the Mishkan is the resting place for the Divine Presence – i.e. the ark, as it is written, “And I will meet with you there, and I will speak with you from above the covering…” Therefore, the ark and its cover are mentioned here first, for this is the most important vessel. It is followed by the table and the menora, which are also vessels, and they point to the Mishkan, which is made for their sake. But in Parashat Vayakhel, Moshe mentions first the Mishkan, its tent and its covering, and so Betzalel made them, since it is proper that the Mishkan be made first. (Ramban, Shemot 25:2)
Ramban’s understanding of the relationship between God’s command and Moshe’s instruction is the opposite of that of the gemara. Nevertheless, he offers insight into the significance of mentioning the Mishkan or the vessels first.
The vessels, and specially the ark, are the ultimate purpose for which the Mishkan is built. The Mishkan is built in order to create a place in which the Divine Presence can dwell and where God can meet with Bnei Yisrael. This purpose is achieved by means of the ark and its cover.
In practical terms, of course, it makes sense to build first the Mishkan and only afterwards the vessels. But in terms of real importance and the ultimate aim, the ark and the other vessels take priority.
Practical Torah Study Combined with Vision
We can now answer the question we posed at the outset. God commanded Moshe to build the Mishkan and thereafter the vessels, because in terms of practical operations, this is the proper order.
Moshe – a man of vision – perceives the lofty purpose of building the Mishkan, and in order to convey the ultimate aim and purpose of all the work that Betzalel is going to oversee, he first speaks to him of the climax of the project: the creation of the wondrous vessel by means of which direct contact will be maintained between Am Yisrael and God. Only afterwards does he speak of the other parts of the Mishkan.
Betzalel, on the other hand, is a man of action. He immediately understands that in practical terms, the order must be first the house and afterwards the furniture.
The midrash teaches:
There were several able people there, and they came to Moshe, finding themselves unable to set up the Mishkan. As Shelomo taught: “Many daughters have shown valor, but you excel them all” – for Moshe was superior to all of them… Each took up his work, and they came to Moshe, saying: “Here are the planks; here are the hinges.” When Moshe saw them, the Divine spirit rested upon him and he set up the Mishkan. (Shemot Rabba 52:4)
The midrash seems to be emphasizing that in order to set up the Mishkan, it is not sufficient to have talented, able people who carry out their work with perfect precision. There has to be a leader with vision who breathes spirit into the materials, transforming them into a Mishkan.
If this is true of a construction of wood and stone, how much more so does it apply to the building up of a person and the molding of his personality.
As scholars sitting in the beit midrash, we are engaged primarily in studying the substance of Torah from different angles and accumulating skills and experience in analyzing and clarifying sugyot in the Gemara. This study is a necessary precondition in order to grow in Torah and in fear of Heaven – but it is not sufficient. In order to build a real Torah personality, strong practical skills are not enough. We must also be people of vision, having before us at all times the aspiration of being filled and saturated with the fear of Heaven that is our ultimate purpose.