The Torah and the Mishkan

  • Harav Yehuda Amital







The Torah and the Mishkan

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha opens with the command to maintain an eternal flame: “And as for you – command Benei Yisrael and let them take to you pure beaten olive oil for light, to kindle an eternal flame” (Shemot 27:20).


A review of the text preceding this command shows a long series of units devoted to constructing the various vessels needed for the Mishkan. It is therefore curious that we suddenly find a command concerning the lights. Admittedly, this is one aspect of the service in the Mishkan, but it is not directly related to the list of vessels.


In fact, the question arises already in last week’s parasha, where the text repeats a number of times the command to gather a variety of materials for the purposes of building the Mishkan:


And this is the contribution that you shall take from them: gold and silver and brass, and blue and purple and scarlet [thread], and fine linen, and goats’ hair; and reddened rams’ skins, and skins of techashim, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense… (25:3-6)


In addition to the command to take the materials for lighting the menora, we also find a command to take the materials necessary for offering up incense – which is likewise part of the Mishkan service, but not directly part of the list of vessels. Seemingly, the best proof that the menora and the incense are not among the vessels of the Mishkan is the fact that the function of the Mishkan is essentially to atone, while the menora and the incense have nothing to do with this function. Why, then, do we find the command to prepare the lights of the menora and the command to offer up incense among the units describing the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels?


In order to answer this question we must first address a different one, which is posed by the Rishonim: why is Moshe’s name mentioned nowhere in the entire parasha? This seems very strange, and certainly deliberate, since even in those verses where we would expect to find his name, it is absent. Instead, the Torah says, “You shall command….”


One of the possible answers proposed by the Rishonim is that this parasha is always read close to the anniversary of Moshe’s death (7th of Adar), and the absence of his name hints to his own absence. However, I do not find this explanation satisfactory. It seems to me that the absence of any mention of Moshe in the parasha actually serves to emphasize his importance.


As we know, there is a perpetual dialectic between religious experience and involvement in Torah study. Throughout our history the proper ratio and relationship between them has been subject to debate: the most extreme example, perhaps, was the fierce conflict between the Vilna Gaon and the early Chassidic leaders. This was a principled disagreement so profound that the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. In the Vilna Gaon’s view, Chassidut had adopted the element of religious experience while rejecting or ignoring the value of Torah study. After some time it became apparent that Chassidut had not abandoned Torah study, but it seems that this was the Vilna Gaon’s concern.


Coming back to our parasha, we may suggest that since these two values seem to conflict with one another, Moshe wanted to be both the giver of the Torah and the Kohen. He wanted to show that it is necessary to combine and integrate the religious experience – as expressed in the service in the Mishkan – and the Torah; he wanted to show that there is no separation between these two spheres. However, God decreed that it would be Aharon and his descendants who would be responsible for the Mishkan service. Moshe had the merit of conveying the Torah to Am Yisrael, but when it comes to the commands concerning the construction of the Mishkan there is no mention of him – since this sphere was given over to Aharon and his descendants.


However, Moshe was apprehensive about this severance – just as the Vilna Gaon was, so many centuries later. Therefore, in order to reassure him, God conveyed the command to take the materials for lighting the menora (expressing Torah study – “For a commandment is a candle, and the Torah is light” – Mishlei 6:23) along with the other materials for building the Mishkan. God was hinting to Moshe that although he was not appointed over the service of the Mishkan and the realm of religious experience, there was no separation between this realm and the realm of Torah.


Moshe symbolizes the complete, perfect, Godly man. The Midrash accentuates this point, teaching that from waist up Moshe was an angel, and from waist down a man. This depiction emphasizes Moshe’s “lack of belonging” to our world, in view of which it is somewhat problematic that it is Moshe who receives the Torah and conveys it to Am Yisrael. After all, God did not want to give the Torah to the angels; He meant it for man, with his mortal desires and inclinations. God did not mean for Moshe to keep the Torah for himself. Therefore, when He conveyed the command concerning the lights (which, as we have said, symbolize Torah study), He said to him, “As for you – you shall command….” The mortal part of you, the part that may be addressed as “you,” is the part that must give the Torah, not the “angelic” part.


Thus, in these units God is emphasizing a dual message to Moshe. On the one hand, Torah and religious experience go hand in hand, and there is no severance between them. On the other hand, the Torah is not given to the “angelic,” Godly Moshe. Rather, it is conveyed to the human, mortal, “you.” For this reason, Moshe’s name is not mentioned in the command concerning the construction of the Mishkan and the taking of the materials for the menora and the incense, but these commands nevertheless appear consecutively.


(This sicha was given on Shabbat parashat Tetzaveh 5767 [2007].)