OU Torah Insights Project
March 11, 2000
Rabbi Ellis Bloch
As the building of the Mishkan is completed and Hashems Presence comes to rest in its midst, it is clear that its construction was an act of atonement for Bnei Yisrael. It helped to restore them, to the degree possible, to their spiritual state prior to the sin of the Golden Calf. How exactly did the construction of the Mishkan accomplish this?
I believe the answer lies in an understanding of the concluding pesukim that describe the building process. The verse states that Bnei Yisrael did all of "the work" exactly the way Hashem commanded Moshe. In the next verse Moshe sees that all "the work" was done exactly as Hashem had commanded, and he blessed the people. Curiously, though, the word for work is changed. First it is called "avodah," and then, in the next verse, it is called "melachah."
The Ramban notes that "avodah"a word which contains spiritual propertiesis used to emphasize the fact that the work associated with the Mishkan was regarded as pure service to Hashem. What motivated the people to build with such exactitude was simply a desire to serve their Creator. The avodah was in their attitude.
The Zohar views their avodah as more deliberate. The people understood the spiritual significance inherent in each and every piece that they built, the Zohar writes, and they were able to incorporate that spirituality in their work along with the exact physical dimensions of each piece. Moshe, though, attests simply to their craftsmanship and therefore uses the term "melachah."
It was not simply the physical beauty of the Mishkan and its vessels that inspired those who entered its confines. The dimensions, shapes and details of the building and its vessels imputed significance. To truly appreciate the beauty and be inspired by what one was seeing, one had to comprehend the underlying meaning of each and every aspect of the Tabernacle. Bnei Yisrael understood this and were capable of incorporating it into the actual construction.
On the other hand, the Ramban intimates that the people had a spiritually uplifting experience without fully comprehending the intricate details of their task. Simply approaching their work with pure dedication, the desire to do Hashems will, was enough. A person could be awed and uplifted just by entering the Tabernacle with the simple understanding that it is a place where one can express devotion to Hashem and experience His presence.
These two approaches have relevance in contemporary life, as well. Unfortunately, we do not have the benefit of a Sanctuary to help us reach the spiritual heights of yesteryear. Our Sages, however, in their infinite wisdom chose prayeravodah shebelev, service of the heartas the replacement for the Sanctuary and its sacrificial service.
The texts that make up our liturgy cannot be fully appreciated without extensive study. To truly have a meaningful prayer experience, one must devote significant time and effort to understanding the nuances of the words and verses that compose the texts.
Nonetheless, if one approaches prayer with a sense of simple opportunityto totally devote oneself to Hashemand pronounces the words with awe and reverence, one can have a spiritually uplifting experience even without a comprehension of the deeper meanings of the prayers.
The truth of the matter is that one could fully comprehend the meaning of every word he says and even know its deeper meanings and still not have a positive spiritual experience--if he fails to approach prayer with the proper sense of awe and reverence.
Let us learn the lesson of our forefathers: a complete understanding of the nature and significance of all mitzvot is key to attaining spiritual loftiness. But we can only begin to reach those spiritual heights by properly devoting ourselves to the mitzvot "as Hashem commanded." More important, by devoting ourselves to the will of Hashem, we can reach those heights even if we dont fully comprehend the meaning of what we are doing.
Rabbi Ellis Bloch
Rabbi Bloch is Director of Department of Yeshivot and Day Schools, Board of Jewish Education and Rabbi of the Washington Heights Congregation in New York City.