Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

The "Hidden" Lesson of the Order of the Construction of the Mishkan

"And Moshe erected the Mishkan, and he placed its sockets…its beams, and its crossbars… And he spread out the tent-curtains (ohel) on the Mishkan and he placed the covering of the ohel on top as G-d commanded Moshe" (P'kudei 40:18-19). With these verses the Torah describes the initial steps of the construction of the Mishkan.  A careful reading of the text reveals an anomaly in the order of the construction. The Mishkan's building structure consisted of gold-coated wooden beams placed into silver sockets and strengthened by crossbars. The roof, unlike in the Mikdash in Jerusalem, consisted of three (or four) coverings.  As described in Parshat T'ruma and repeated in Parshat VaYakheil, they were: 1) the woolen curtains called "Mishkan"; 2) the goat-hair curtains "to be an ohel"; 3) a leather cover (or covers) made of ram and tachash skin (see T'ruma 26 and Rashbam and S'forno to 26:1). Following this nomenclature then, our verses tell us that Moshe first erected the bottommost "Mishkan" curtains, then he placed the sockets and the wooden beams with their crossbars. Afterward he spread out the goat-hair curtains as an ohel followed by the leather cover. This order certainly contradicts the intuitive order of construction, which would be to first place the sockets and the beams and then spread the "Mishkan" curtains on top followed by the others. As described by the Torah, the Mishkan curtains had to be suspended in mid-air somehow and then the structural beams and sockets placed underneath them. The commentaries noting this anomaly explain the verses in two basic ways. 1) "Mishkan" refers not to the bottommost curtains here but rather to the total structure (see Ha'amek Davar and Malbim). 2) "Mishkan" indeed refers to these curtains and they were suspended first either by Moshe, with poles, or miraculously (see Ibn Ezra, S'forno, and Rashi to M'nachot 99a also implied by his commentary to verse 40:19).  

In commenting on this counterintuitive construction order, S'forno writes that these curtains were the main part of the entire structure of the Mishkan and therefore were set up first. All the other structural beams and covers were to support and cover these curtains! S'forno to T'ruma (26:1) elucidates this somewhat by pointing out that in them were the major vessels of the "Mishkan" - the resting place of the Divine Presence. This is difficult since the beams also housed these same vessels. Why are the curtains any more significant than the beams?

Perhaps we can suggest an approach based on an analysis of the central theme of the Mishkan and later the Mikdash in Jerusalem.  The Mishkan was of course the "meeting place" of G-d and Man containing within it symbolically and with its ‘avoda the major themes of Divine service. It represented the goal of creation[1] (see Tanchuma Sh'mini) and the fulfillment of the Divine plan of "The Holy One Blessed Be He desired to create a dwelling place for himself in the lower worlds" in which Man would elevate himself constantly by cleaving to His Creator. (In the article The Ultimate Mikdash, we elaborated on this theme more fully.) One of the cardinal principles in Divine service is middat hatzniut  -- the quality of privacy and modesty. The prophet Micha (6:8) encapsulates one the three major themes of ‘avodat Hashem in his famous statement "v'hatznei'a lechet ‘im Elokecha" -- "and walk humbly (privately) before your G-d" (see Makkot 24a). Inherent in the very construction of the Mishkan is a powerful message of this important quality. First, the "Mishkan" woolen curtains were set up creating a roof and four temporary walls. Only afterward were the silver sockets and gold-covered beams placed underneath followed by the dazzling golden vessels of the Mishkan: the ‘Aron, Shulcan, M'nora and Mizbei'ach. The message could be as follows: whether one is filled with Torah-wisdom represented by the ‘Aron and the M'nora, or is of royal blood or wealthy symbolized by the Shulchan or complete in his Divine service symbolized by the Mizbei'ach (see Kli Yakar to T'ruma 25:10), all of these talents and accomplishments must be channeled properly toward the goal of serving our Creator and sharing our gifts with His creations but in a private, non-ostentatious manner. Rav Soloveitchik in one of his lectures beautifully described the many heroes of Jewish history who are unknown to us since they engaged in enormous acts of kindness but never told anyone. After they acted majestically they "faded into the shadows of history". It was sufficient for them that the One Above know about their accomplishments without the need for a public display of righteousness.

Rav Dovid Ariav in his enlightening s'farim on the interpersonal laws of the Torah entitled L'Rei'acha Kamocha writes that one of the primary ways to overcome the bad trait of jealousy is to realize that the measure of your success in the world is not what others say or think of what you own or the talent that you have. This of course is the source of much jealousy. Rather, the barometer of success or failure is how many mitzvot you perform and how many middot you have worked on perfecting. All of these acts can largely be done in the private sphere away from the public eye known to G-d alone. These are the greatest of accomplishments.

In a world practically obsessed with ostentatious presentations of wealth, immodest displays of beauty, and haughty exhibitions of talent and wisdom, the lesson of midat hatzniut included in the Mishkan and throughout the entire Torah must be absorbed, practiced and put into action. May we all merit to fulfill the charge of Micha: "v'hatznei'a lechet ‘im Elokecha"!


[1] The laws of Shabbat, the day eternally recalling Divine Creation, not surprisingly are derived from the construction of the Mishkan since, in essence, the Jewish people were building a microcosm of the world.

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