Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar, February 1, 2014
Our topic today is the miskhan, the portable sanctuary assembled and disassembled and moved around the desert while B’nai Yisrael wander in the wilderness. Today we read a detailed description of its creation from soliciting the materials to the particulars of construction both of the structure itself and of the ritual items to be housed there. Despite their detail, It would be imprudent to try to use these descriptions to recreate the mishkan, the instructions are wholly insufficient. Yet the usually concise Torah devotes much time and space to this topic. Far more than is practical or, at least according to some, interesting. In study of Torah, both traditional and critical, such extensive description is treated as a measure of importance. Clearly, the Torah thinks the mishkan is important.
The introduction of the mishkan in today’s parashah naturally led me to wonder whatever happens to it? The mishkan is intended to be temporary- replaced by the permanent structure of the Temple in Jerusalem. But what happens to the structure whose building we began to read about today once the people end up in the Land of Israel?
In the book of Joshua, we are told that the miskhan is assembled in Shilo. The book of Samuel has a few incidents about the aron kodesh, the ark of the covenant, but pretty much, the mishkan is out of the picture until in 1 Samuel it is brought by King Solomon to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple.
Considering how many of the upcoming parshiyot are going to be focused on the building of the mishkan and the rituals that take place there, it is surprising that as soon as B’nai Yisrael arrive in Israel, the centrality these rituals are much diminished. While they are in the desert, the mishkan is the center of the camp, and even when traveling, the tribe’s marching instructions were related to the mishkan. Yet once across the Jordan, the mishkan is set up in Shilo and then hardly mentioned at all. It’s neither the focus of the narrative nor of the people. How could something the Torah considers so important practically disappear from the narrative in the rest of the Bible?
To answer this, we should probably consider the function of the mishkan. The word mishkan comes from the room ש.כ.נ which means to dwell. It is named such because G-d intends to dwell there. ושכנתי בתוכם (Exodus 25:8). If you think about this, it’s rather odd. Why does a non corporeal being need a place to dwell? Until this point, G-d engages with individuals and communal leaders as necessary. In Mesopotamia, Israel, Egypt and Midian. What’s changed? Why is a mishkan needed now?
Parshat Trumah is close in proximity to the giving of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the existence of the physical tablets necessitate a physical structure to house them. Or said in a more generalized way, the people of Israel, after the giving of the commandments have completed their shift from family to nation and now need a centralized place to convene.
But this just strengthens the question. If a central place of focus for worship is critical, why does this stop when the people enter the Land of Israel?
Perhaps at first they are distracted by the conquest and building of the Land. Yet, even in periods of relative peace, the unity, and centrality of worship at the mishkan, or anywhere else, doesn’t come together. Even today, it’s not uncommon to hear residents of modern day Israel claim that ritual observance is less relevant to them simply because they live in Israel. Could it be something about the land itself? If so, then why would there be a need for the eventual construction of the Temple? And if the mishkan was fulfilling their spiritual needs all this time, then why is it hardly mentioned?
For an answer, let’s look at the nature of the mishkan itself. As described in our parashah, it was designed to be portable, and to be disassembled. Such a structure fulfilled the needs of the people while they were transient, but once they became residents of their new country, it’s incongruous. As nice as a traveling temple can be, once you arrive at your destination, having daily rituals take place in a tent seems inappropriate. At summer camp, everyone uses a sleeping bag, but most people don’t use them in their apartments and homes.
What is it about being transient that causes us to think differently? On vacation, most of us chose to live without many of the comforts and objects that we use daily at home. And while we live in Manhattan, to have a dishwasher or a washing machine is especially luxurious, yet they are standard appliances most of the rest of this country.
The mentality of transience is not only about physical things. It can cause us not only to put off buying furniture, but also to put off making decisions or changes. We tell ourselves that we’re only in a temporary situation. Maybe later. Then we’ll register to vote. Then we’ll get involved.
What is holding us back? Even if we don’t have our ideal job yet, or we still have yet to decide about going back to school, or we’re still living with roommates, or think we may yet move to the suburbs, or fill in the blank for yourself. What would our neighborhood or communities look like if we took our residency here as permanent? If we felt more invested? What would it take for us to transition from a mentality of transience to one of permanence?
The midrash (Tanhuma Terumah 9) on our parashah asks where the krashim the boards for the mishkan came from? After all, deserts are not known for their abundant trees. It answers that they were taken from cedar trees planted by the sons of Jacob while passing through the desert on their way to Egypt. Though they were transient, they knew that their descendants would need them to be able to build the mishkan.
May we grow to to see ourselves as more like the sons of Jacob, who planned not just for their future but for those who came generations after them. And may we find ourselves feeling invested and at home, wherever we happen to live.