Parshat Pekidei The Mishcan Communicates that Bnai Yisrael Were Forgiven for the Sin of the Egel

The Mishcan Communicates that Bnai Yisrael Were Forgiven for the Sin of the Egel

And these are the accounts of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle of the Testimony – that were calculated by Moshe. It was the service of the Leveyim under the authority of Itamar the son of Aharon the Kohen. (Shemot 38:21)

This pasuk introduces Parshat Pekudey The parasha provides an account of the materials donated for the Mishcan and a description of the manner in which these materials were used in the fabrication of the Mishcan, its utensils, and the garments of the kohanim.

The pasuk refers to the Mishcan as the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The simple meaning of this term is that the Mishcan housed the Luchot – the Tablets of the Decalogue. These Luchot provided testimony. They evidenced the authenticity of the Torah and the relationship between Hashem and His nation.

Rashi, based on Midrash Rabbah, offers another suggestion regarding the testimony identified with the Mishcan. He explains that the Tabernacle indicated that Hashem had forgiven Bnai Yisrael for the sin of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. Upon the completion of the Mishcan, the Divine Presence descended upon the Tabernacle. This indicated that the relationship with Hashem was re-established.

The midrash’s position regarding the testimony provided by the Mishcan creates an interesting difficulty. The end of the pasuk explains that the service in the Mishcan was entrusted to the Leveyim and Kohanim. This was not Hashem’s original intention. Initially, service was entrusted to the Firstborn. However, the Firstborn involved themselves in the sin of the Egel. In contrast, the Leveyim and Kohanim withstood temptation and opposed the Egel. As a consequence, the responsibility for service in the Mishcan was transferred from the first-born to the Leveyim and Kohanim. The end of the pasuk acknowledges this change from the original plan.

According to the midrash’s position regarding the testimony provided by the Mishcan, the pasuk communicates a confusing message. The first part of the pasuk indicates that the Mishcan testified to Hashem’s forgiveness. The second part of the pasuk seems to indicate the opposite: the service was not restored to the Firstborn. This seems to imply that the sin of the Egel had not been completely forgiven.

Meshech Chachmah offers an interesting answer to this question. Maimonides explains that a kohen who practices or endorses idolatry may not serve in the Temple. This law applies even if the kohen repents fully for his sin. Why can the repentant kohen not return to service? Presumably, Hashem has forgiven him! The answer seems to be that once the kohen becomes associated with idolatry, he is permanently unfit for service in the Mishcan. Repentance and forgiveness can be achieved, but they do not remove this association with idolatry. In other words, once a kohen tarnishes himself through associating with idolatry, even repentance and forgiveness cannot restore his fitness to serve in the Temple.

Based on this law, the Meshech Chachmah explains the message of the pasuk: Bnai Yisrael had indeed been forgiven for the sin of the Egel. Nonetheless, the Firstborn were no longer qualified to serve. They were identified with the idolatry of the Egel. Therefore, they were permanently disqualified from service in the Mishcan.

The Manufacture of Gold Thread

And they beat the gold into thin plates and cut them into threads, which they included in the blue, dark red and crimson wool and fine linen as patterned brocade. (Shemot 39:3)

The garments of the Kohen Gadol contain a number of materials. The basic threads are blue wool, dark red wool, crimson wool, and fine linen. The vestments also contain gold threads. However, the gold threads are interwoven with the other threads. How is this accomplished? Each thread of blue, dark red and crimson wood and fine linen is composed of seven interwoven strands: six are made up of the colored wool or fine linen, and the seventh, gold. For example, a thread of blue wool in composed of seven individual strands woven together to create a single thread. Six of these strands are blue wool. The seventh strand is gold. In this manner, gold is included in each of the threads of the garment.

Our pasuk describes the process through which these gold threads are created. A quantity of gold is beaten into a thin plate, or foil. Then, this foil is cut into fine threads.

The Torah does not provide many details regarding the manufacturing processes used in creating the Mishcan and the vestments of the kohanim. This lack of detail is exemplified in the narrative of the silver sockets. The Torah does not go beyond explaining that the boards supporting the curtains of the Mishcan were inserted into these silver sockets. There is no discussion of the process by which these sockets were fabricated.

The only details regarding manufacturing methods that the Torah does provide are the means by which these gold threads were fashioned. It is odd that these details should be mentioned. Why does this method of craftsmanship deserve special attention?

Nachmanides offers an answer to this question. He explains that the reason the Torah does not generally describe the means used to manufacture the Mishcan and its components is because the Torah did not dictate the specific manufacturing processes. In other words, the commandments to construct the Mishcan and the garments delineate the objects which must be manufactured. The commandments do not dictate the means of manufacture. This aspect of the project was left to the craftsmen. They were responsible to determine the best means for manufacturing the objects. For this reason, the specific manufacturing processes are not included in the commandment of regarding the construction and they are not included in the account of the actual process that ensued.

This presented the craftsmen with a dilemma. They understood the description of the Kohen Gadol’s garments. They realized that the individual threads of the garments must contain a gold strand. However, they were not familiar with a process through which gold thread could be manufactured. This challenge exceeded their experience and their collective store of knowledge. They were required to invent some novel process for manufacturing these gold strands. The Torah is describing a manufacturing process that was invented by the craftsmen of the Mishcan. This process is described in order to demonstrate the wisdom of these craftsmen who invented a completely new process.[1]

The Curtain in front of the Ark

And you should place there the Ark of Testimony. And you should shield the Aron with the curtain. (Shemot 40:3)

Our pasuk discusses the Parochet. This was a curtain suspended in the Mishcan, in front of the Aron. According to our pasuk, the function of the Parochet was to shield the Aron.

The Mishcan was composed of two areas. These two areas were the Kodesh – the Holy – and the Kodesh HaKadashim – the Holy of the Holy. The Aron was placed in the Kodesh HaKadashim. The Parochet separated these two areas. The Chumash, in Parshat Terumah, indicates that the purpose of the Parochet was to separate the Kodesh from the Kodesh HaKadashim.

It seems that the Chumash is offering two different characterizations of the function of the Parochet. Our parasha indicates that the function of the Parochet was to shield the Aron. In Parshat Terumah, the Chumash indicates that the function of the Parochet was to separate the Kodesh from the Kodesh HaKadashim. How can we reconcile the two conflicting characterizations?

In reality, these two sources are not contradictory. The Parochet was essentially a shield in front of the Aron. The Chumash, in Parshat Terumah, does not contradict this function. The Chumash is merely requiring that this shield be extended beyond the dimensions of the Aron, in order to create two areas within the Mishcan. In other words, the shielding function defines the Parochet. Once the Parochet meets this essential qualification, it can be extended to create a separation between the Kodesh and the Kodesh HaKadashim.

There are various laws that support this understanding of the Parochet. The Talmud, in Tractate Yoma, comments that the staves of the Aron actually protruded into the Parochet. One who observed the Parochet from the Kodesh saw two projections pushing out the curtain. This strange requirement can be understood based upon our knowledge of the Parochet. The essential function of the Parochet was to shield the Aron. In order to demonstrate this function – that the Parochet was a shield for the Aron – the staves protruded into the Parochet.

This also explains another interesting halachah. The Parochet played a role in the service associated with certain sacrifices. A portion of the blood of these sacrifices was sprinkled, by the kohen, in the direction of the Parochet. This law is expressly stated in the Chumash. The midrash Torat Kohanim comments that the blood could not be sprinkled toward any portion of the Parochet. The sprinkling must be directed specifically towards the portion of the Parochet into which the staves of the Aron protruded. Why was this portion of the Parochet special? Based on the above discussion, this halachah can be appreciated. The Parochet was, in essence, a shield for the Aron. Therefore, the essential portion of the Parochet was the portion directly in front of the staves. The blood was to be sprinkled on this portion of the Parochet.

This role of the Parochet is evident in today’s synagogues. It is customary to hang a curtain in front of the Aron. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l explained that this practice is based upon the halachah in our pasuk. We are duplicating the practice in the Mishcan. Our Ark represents the Aron of the Mishcan. Therefore, our Ark requires a curtain. It is fitting that we call this curtain a Parochet.

Moshe’s Service in the Mishcan

And it was that in the first month of the second year, on the first day of that month the Mishcan was erected. (Shemot 40:17)

The Mishcan was completed and brought to Moshe. Moshe erected the Mishcan on the first day of Nisan, in the second year of the sojourn in the wilderness.

This was the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishcan. On this day, the service in the Mishcan was performed by Moshe together with the kohanim. After this day, all service would be performed by the kohanim alone. Moshe would no longer serve in the Mishcan.

Moshe was not a kohen. Yet, during the eight days of the inauguration, Moshe served as a priest. Why was Moshe appointed for this task? The service was assigned to Aharon and his sons. How could Moshe serve in the place of the kohanim?

The commentaries offer various answers to this question. One of the most interesting solutions is provided by Gershonides. He explains that Moshe was selected and qualified to serve on these days because he was “the father of the priesthood and had given birth to it”.[2] What is Gershonides telling us? Moshe was not Aharon’s father! He was Aharon’s brother. He had not given birth to the kohanim; they were not his children!

It is clear that Gershonides’ statement is not to be understood literally. Instead, Gershonides is explaining an important concept underlying the selection of the kohanim to serve in the Temple. The kohanim were not chosen simply because they are the descendants of Aharon. Neither was Aharon selected purely on the basis of his own merit. Aharon was chosen because he was Moshe’s brother. Similarly, Aharon’s descendants are kohanim not merely because Aharon is their ancestor. They are descendants of Moshe’s brother. This relationship is essential to their status as priests.

Gershonides is explaining that Moshe is the father of the institution of priesthood. Without him, Aharon would not have merited to be selected as Kohen Gadol. Neither would his children be kohanim. This explains the basis of Moshe’s qualification to serve as a kohen. He was the source of the kohanim’s sanctity. If the kohanim served by virtue of their relationship to Moshe, it follows that Moshe could serve.

Mishcan and Ohel Moed

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: On the first day of the first month you shall erect Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. (Shemot 40:1-2)

In the above passage, Moshe is commanded to assemble and erect the completed sanctuary. The passage employs two terms in referring to this sanctuary: Mishcan – Tabernacle – and Ohel Moed – Tent of Meeting. What is the difference between these two terms? Both seem to refer to the single sanctuary! Why are both terms needed?

And Moshe erected the Mishcan, and laid its sockets, and set up its planks, and put in its bars, and reared up its pillars. And he spread the tent over the Mishcan, and put the covering of the tent above upon it; as Hashem commanded Moshe. (Shemot 40:18-19)

This pasuk describes Moshe’s activities in erecting the sanctuary. It is clear from this passage that the Mishcan contains three sets of coverings, or curtains. The first series of curtains are spread over the skeletal structure of boards, thus creating a ceiling, or covering, over the area enclosed by the boards, and over most of the outer surface of the boards. The result is a box-like structure of curtains supported by the skeletal boards. Over these curtains, a second set of curtains is spread, covering the set of curtains. Our passage refers to this second set of curtains as a “tent.” Finally, a third covering is placed over the roof of the second layer, or “tent”, of curtains. According to the opinions of some, this covering is composed of two layers. Therefore, three layers of coverings are suspended over the inner area of the sanctuary. The curtains of the Mishcan are the inner surface, or ceiling. Lying atop this ceiling are the curtains of the tent. These curtains are covered by a third covering of a single (or double) layer.

Each of the layers has its own name. The innermost layer is the Mishcan. The middle layer is referred to as the “tent.” The outer layer is referred to as a “covering.” What is the significance of these three terms? All three of the terms seem applicable to each layer. For example: the innermost layer is part of the Mishcan. It creates a tent over the inner area, and it covers this area. The same can be said regarding the middle and outer layers. Yet, the Torah never interchanges these names. The inner layer is always refereed to a Mishcan. The middle is the tent. The outer layer is the covering.

Rabbahynu Ovadia Sforno deals with this question. Before we consider his explanation, some background information is helpful. The inner curtains are woven. The design of the weave is intricate. Shapes of cherubs are interwoven into the fabric. These cherubs are visible on both sides of the curtains.

Sforno explains that the inner curtains of the sanctuary are referred to as Mishcan because they are designed to surround with cherubs the Aron, Shulchan and Menorah – the Ark, Table, and Candelabra.[3] He further explains that the middle layer of curtains is described as a tent because its purpose is to create a tent over the inner curtains. However, the inner curtains are not referred to as a “tent.” This is because their purpose is not to serve as a tent. Their purpose is solely to impose the images of the cherubs above and surrounding the Aron, Shulchan, and Menorah.[4]

In these comments, Sforno is explaining the meaning of the term Mishcan and tent. Sforno proposes that these two terms have very different meanings: the term “tent” refers to a structure designed to create an inner space. It demarks the inner space, and separates and shields it from its surroundings. The term “Mishcan” refers to walls and a ceiling that are not designed to create a space, but are instead designed to create a specific appearance, or environment, within a space.

An analogy will be helpful. Consider a house. A house has outer walls and a roof. Its outer walls and roof are designed to separate the space within from the outside and to protect this space from the outside elements. These outer walls may be made of brick, stone, wood, or some other substance. The roof will be composed of shingles, tile or some other substance. The substances used for building these components of the house will be selected to correspond with their design and function as outer walls and a roof. They will not be composed of plaster or wood paneling as these materials are not appropriate for the functions of outer walls or a roof. However, plaster is appropriate for the inner walls and ceiling of a house. The inner walls and ceiling are not designed to protect the space from the outside. They create the living area within. Their appearance, form and texture should complement and suit the intended purpose of this space. In fact, we use different terms to refer to the overhead surface on the inside of our homes and the surface on the outside: the outside surface is a roof and the inner surface is a ceiling. These two terms, “ceiling” and “roof,” communicate their different functions. Although we do not have different terms to refer to the inside and outside walls of a house, we distinguish them by their function and design in the same manner as we do with roofs and ceilings.

Sforno is suggesting that the inner Mishcan curtains are designed to surround the essential components of the sanctuary with cherubs. The surrounding cherubs provide character to the environment in which the Aron, Shulchan, and Menorah are placed. The middle layer of curtains – the tent – is designed to separate and protect the inner space from the outer area.

In order to fully appreciate the meaning of these comments, it is important to visualize an outcome of the design of the sanctuary. The cherub figures were interwoven throughout the fabric of inner curtains – the Mishcan. However, these figures are only visible to an observer standing inside the sanctuary and looking up. The figures woven into the curtains that hang down to form walls are not visible from the inside or outside of the sanctuary. On the inside they are obscured by the boards that hold up the curtains. On the outside they are completely covered by the tent curtains. It seems odd that the essential feature of the Mishcan curtains – the cherubs – are only visible to a person inside looking up!

Sforno is suggesting that although these cherubs are not readily visible from within or without, they nonetheless are the essential feature of the environment of the Mishcan. They create an environment of surrounding cherubs. Their effect – the creation of this environment – does not depend on their visibility. Their existence as figures woven into the fabric of the curtains creates the required environment.

Now, we can understand the term used to refer to the outer curtains. These curtains are placed atop the roof of the tent. They are referred to as a covering. The term “covering” has a very literal meaning in our context. These outer curtains are not designed to create a space or to create an environment. They serve as a covering to protect the surface of the middle tent curtains.

Based on Sforno’s comments, we can appreciate the lack of interchangeability of the terms Mishcan, “tent,” and “covering.” The inner Mishcan curtains cannot be referred to as a tent. They are not designed to create an inner space and separate and protect it from the outer area. Neither are these curtains a covering. The middle curtains are a tent. They do not create the inner environment. They are not a covering. The outermost covering of curtains is not a tent. Also, they do not create an inner space and they do not create an environment.

And you shall make the planks for the Mishcan of acacia wood, upright. (Shemot 26:15)

As noted above, the Mishcan curtains are supported by a skeletal structure of planks. Our passage explains that these planks are placed upright. Each plank is placed immediately adjacent to its neighbor. In this manner, a continuous surface is created. The commentaries explain that the placement of the planks in an upright position is an absolute requirement. They cannot be positioned horizontally upon one another.[5] This is an interesting requirement. It would seem that whether placed upright to create a continual surface or placed horizontally upon one another, the same outcome is achieved. Why must the planks be placed in an upright position?

According to Sforno, we can understand this requirement. These planks are not intended to create an inner wall. The inner wall of the Mishcan is the curtains of the Mishcan. The sole function of these planks is to support the curtains. In other words, the planks support the curtains; the curtains do not cover and adorn the planks. The positioning of the planks communicates their function. Horizontally-placed planks create the impression of an inner wall. Such an inner wall contradicts the function of the Mishcan curtains. It is these curtains that create the inner environment of the Mishcan. The upright position of the planks contributes to communicating their purpose – the support of the Mishcan curtains.

Now, our original question is easily answered. The terms Mishcan and Ohel Moed both refer to the sanctuary. However, these terms refer to different aspects of the structure. Mishcan is the innermost structure. The innermost curtains create this structure. Ohel Moed – tent of meeting – refers to the middle curtains that create the tent within which the Mishcan is situated.

[1] Rabbahynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 39:3.

[2] Rabbahynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 457.

[3] Rabbahynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 26:1.

[4] Rabbahynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 26:7.

[5] Rabbahynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 26:15.