The Tabernacle: History’s Most Bizarre Capital Campaign

And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said: Rise up, Hashem, and let Your enemies be scattered; and let them that hate You flee before You.  (Sefer BeMidbar 10:35)

1.  The initial plan: To quickly occupy the promised land

Parshat BeHa’alotecha opens with a description of the final preparations for Bnai Yisrael’s departure from the Sinai wilderness.  The Mishcan – the Tabernacle – was completed and it was initiated through the sacrifices of the princes of the shevatim – the tribes.  The trumpets were fashioned that would be used to direct and coordinate the movement of the camp. The cloud of Hashem had taken its position over the Mishcan.  All was ready for Bnai Yisrael’s triumphant march into the promised Land of Cana’an.

The nation departed Sinai.  In a single day the camp traveled an enormous distance.  Our Sages explain that a typically three-day journey was completed in a single day.[1]  The journey to the Land of Cana’an was to be completed in a matter of days.[2]  As the passage above explains, the nations of the land would flee from before Hashem’s nation and those who dare to resist will be quickly defeated. Of course, all of this would change in response to the sins of the people. But when Bnai Yisrael departed Sinai, they expected to take possession of their promised legacy in short-order.

And on the day that the Tabernacle was assembled the cloud covered the Tabernacle, even the Tent of the Testimony; and at evening there was upon the Tabernacle as it were the appearance of fire, until morning.  So it was always: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of fire by night.  (Sefer BeMidbar 9:15-16)

2.  The Mishcan was intended to be a very short-lived structure

Yet, there is one element of the Torah’s narrative that seems completely inconsistent with the image of the nation poised to enter and possess the Land of Can’an.  The journey could not begin until the Mishcan was constructed and fabricated.  The Torah describes the Mishcan as an ornate structure, designed with enormous detail, composed of the finest fabrics and the most precious metals.  When Bnai Yisrael were commanded to create the Mishcan they expected to soon take possession of the Land of Cana’an.  With the conquest of the land, this wondrous structure would be replaced by the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple.  Why was such an elaborate and magnificent structure necessary for a Mishcan that would only be in service for a short period of time?

A simple response lies in understanding the significance of the Mishcan.  The Mishcan was the central element of the encampment of Bnai Yisrael.  All of the tribes camped around the Mishcan.  Also, when the nation traveled through the wilderness, the Mishcan remained the central component of the camp.  The Mishcan represented the presence of Hashem’s providence.  It endowed the encampment with a sanctity that encompassed the entire camp.  Therefore, even through the Mishcan was conceived as a structure whose function would be of short duration, its significance was enormous.  The detailed and beautiful design of the Mishcan reflected its significance.  However, there is another fundamental reason for the Mishcan‘s elaborate and beautiful design.

And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of Hashem.  And when Hashem heard it, His anger was kindled.  And the fire of Hashem burnt among them, and devoured in the extreme part of the camp.  And the people cried unto Moshe; and Moshe prayed unto Hashem, and the fire abated. (Sefer BeMidbar 11:1-2)

3.  Appreciating blessings

As noted above, the first portion of the parasha describes the completion of the final preparations for the journey to the Land of Can’an.  This portion of the parasha ends with the initiation of that journey.  The later portion of the parasha describes a tragic series of incidents that occurred soon thereafter.  The people began to complain.  They could not endure the austerity of the wilderness.  Their complaints focused on their diet.  They had only the mun – the manna.  There was no excitement or variety in their diet.  Ultimately, the nation’s laments provoked severe punishment.  Why was their sin so grievous as to provoke a plague that took to lives of the protesters?

Many of the commentaries explain that the nation’s sin was its complete lack of appreciation for the miracles experienced every day in the wilderness.  The mun did not provide the people with the exciting fare for which they longed.  Nonetheless, the manna was a wonderful blessing that fully satisfied their needs.  There was another shortcoming implicit in the people’s complaints.

And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: I am not able to bear you alone. Hashem your G-d has multiplied you, and, behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven in multitude.  May Hashem, the G-d of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as you are, and bless you, as He has promised you!  How can I alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?  Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.  (Sefer Devarim 1:9-13)

4.  Distinguishing between the important and trivial

Earlier in the Torah, Moshe’s appointment of judges is recorded.  These judges shared with Moshe the burden of administering justice and maintaining peace among the people.  In his final address to the Bnai Yisrael, Moshe reminds the people of the sins that their parents committed in the wilderness.  In the context of this address, Moshe reminds the people that in order to administer justice and preserve order, it was necessary to create and implement a system of judges.[3]  Why does Moshe include this observation in his rebuke?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that the establishment of a system of judges provides a penetrating insight into the emotional state of the people.  The nation was traveling to the Land of Cana’an.   Moshe had told the people that they would soon arrive in the land, conquer it, and take possession of their legacy.  He described the fertility and super-abundance of the land.  In short, Moshe told the people that they would very soon enjoy lives of prosperity and comfort.
With their material needs met, they would be free to pursue spiritual goals and draw close to Hashem.

What response would have been appropriate and what was the actual response of the people to this wonderful news?  We would expect the people to be overtaken by excitement and anticipation.  They should have been eager to embark upon the march to the promised land and completely focused upon the remarkable era that would soon begin.  How did the people respond?  They bickered with one another; they quarreled.  So many disputes arose among the people that Moshe could not even begin the march before installing a system of judges to maintain the peace.  In other words, the expected excitement and anticipation did not fully emerge.  Instead, the trivial strife and conflict that is so typical of human society persisted.  This was Moshe’s rebuke![4]

Sforno’s comments are also relevant to the expressions of dissatisfaction and frustration expressed in our parasha.  In themselves, these complaints were not astounding.  They were a very human response to the people’s encounter with the austerity of life in the wilderness.  However, these complaints become remarkable when viewed in context.  These complaints surfaced early in the short journey to the promised land.  All of these perceived deprivations would soon be eliminated with the nation’s arrival into the Land of Cana’an.  Could the people not endure a short ordeal of hardship on the path to their wondrous destiny?  The magnitude of their sin lay in their inability to rise above their mundane desires and grasp the enormity of the material and spiritual blessings that they would soon receive.  They should have accepted their perceived hardships as a minor price to be paid in exchange for a wondrous and rapidly approaching future. Rather than graciously accepting their perceived hardships, they denounced their austere condition and lamented their suffering.

And they spoke unto Moshe, saying: The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which Hashem commanded to make.  (Sefer Shemot 36:5)

5.  Assessing one’s true material needs

This analysis sheds light upon the design and construction of the Mishcan.  All of the precious materials from which it was constructed were presented by the people.  They eagerly contributed their gold, silver, copper, and their finest yarns and threads.  They gave without reservation.  As explained in the above passage, their contributions were only halted when they exceeded the requirements for the fabrication of the Mishcan.

Their generosity reflected confidence and security.  They did not fear for their future.  Normal human anxiety over the uncertainty of the future drives us to save and accumulate resources and wealth.  We hope to thereby insulate ourselves from some of the misfortunes that may befall us.  The contributors to the Mishcan did not have this anxiety.  They were confident of the future that awaited them.  They felt no need to accumulate and preserve their wealth as a resource to sustain them in future hard times.  They were confident there would not be hard times in their future.

Now, the elaborate design and magnificence of the Mishcan is more meaningful.  Although, this Mishcan was intended as a very temporary structure, it was constructed of the finest materials.  This was not only because of its important function as the central structure to the encampment and the source of the camp’s sanctity.  The creation of the Mishcan from the finest and most valuable materials was an expression of the people’s complete confidence in their future.  They gave generously and without concern or anxiety over the future. This attitude reflected a remarkable degree of cognitive clarity.  Our parasha describes the disintegration of that remarkable clarity of perception and its replacement with a more pedestrian view of the world.  Accompanying that more common outlook was the reemergence of mundane desires and the corresponding sense of deprivation.

6.  The personal dynamic in practicing tzedakah

The Torah account of the Mishcan captures the fundamental dynamic of charitable giving – tzedakah.  The individual’s practice of tzedakah is determined by two factors. First, the individual must determine that the cause to which he is being asked to contribute is worthy.  Second, this individual must be capable of assessing his own needs and determining his capacity to practice tzedakah.  The campaign to build the Mishcan reflected the people’s successful assessment of both of these factors.  They understood that although the Mishcan was to function for only a short period, its significance was enormous.  Second, they were able to objectively assess their capacity to participate.  They concluded that they had no need for the wealth that they had accumulated and they gave of it freely and generously.

This dynamic applies to us every time we are asked to participate in tzedakah.  First, we must assess the virtue of the cause we are asked to support.  Second, we must objectively assess our capacity to participate.  If we cannot be objective regarding our capacity, then we will not participate.  If we live in fear of impending disaster or delude ourselves into believing that accumulating wealth provides true security, then no matter how much wealth we accumulate, we perceive ourselves as desperately poor.

When we choose to practice tzedakah, we support and sustain individuals who need us and causes that are fundamental to our nation.  We also liberate ourselves from our fears and anxieties.  While aiding others we perform a chesed – a kindness – to ourselves.


[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 10:33.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 10:29.

[3] It is not clear from the passages whether Moshe referred to the appointment of judges at Sinai or the appointment of elders described in our parasha.

[4] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 1:11.