Terumah: The Really Fun Symbolism of the Mishkan

The Aron

This week, I’m going to do four faces of Torah. But I’m going to start with the structural instead of the inspiration and then I’ll move on to the other faces because they need the structural to make sense.

Structural/Symbolic

The first question we have to ask is this: what is the Mishkan?

I’m not going to go into some complex mystical answer. The Torah says what it is: the Mishkan enables Hashem to dwell within the people.

The more important question is: how does it do this?

The symbolism in the Torah tends to be rather… concrete. So let me present my theory of the Mishkan in one sentence: The Mishkan has the representations of the revelations of the Hashem placed within representations of the people themselves.

In other words, G-d dwells within the people.

Through the process of the Exodus, there have been three major revelations. The burning bush (or sneh). The Ma’an – or bread given so that Hashem can show His face to the people. And the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai.

These three revelations are represented by the articles of the Mishkan.

The giving of the Torah is represented by the Aron (the Ark) and its cover. Not only do the physical ten commandments stay within the Aron, there were Keruvim – angels – at the giving of the Torah.

The Ma’an is represented by the table and the showbread. Before giving the Ma’an Hashem says:

‘I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel. Speak unto them, saying: At dusk ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God.’

This is the bread of faces, the Lechem Panim. There were actually two cases of Hashem feeding the people. The first was the Ma’an, but the second was when he fed the elders in Parshat Mishpatim. Gold, in the Chumash, represents the divine. Just think of the Keruvim and the Menorah. This table and its utensils have gold all over them. While the bread represents the Mahn (Manna), I think the tablerepresents the meal Hashem served the elders.

The sneh, or burning bush, is represented by the Menorah. It has branches and flowers and knobs and it continually burns and is never consumed. Just as the burning bush represents creation without destruction, so does the Menorah. This is why the Chanukah miracle is that the oil lasted 8 days – it was as if, instead of just being a symbol, the Menorah was actually burning without consumption.

All these representations of revelations are placed within an area called the Kadosh – or Holy. It is a further hint that they represent the divine.

So where are the people in this representation? Before the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments), G-d describes making the people a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” (Ex. 19:6)

A Kingdom has order and rules. The Torah reading of Mishpatim, right after the Ten Commandments starts with a civil code – laws that have specific outcomes enforced by man. The laws aren’t just civil, they set the scene for a nation that can relate to G-d. One might call it a ‘Kingdom of Priests’.

There are 53 situations in these laws and there are 56 outcomes.

The Mishkan has 53 internal pillars and 56 external ones.

The pillars represent the Kingdom of Priests.

What about the Holy Nation?

The word for Nation is ‘Goi.’ It is also used for a cow’s cud. It is formless – it isn’t well-defined.

What are the inner pillars – the pillars of the Kadosh – covered with? Floppy hangings with angels on them. The hangings have no form without the pillars. And so the floppiness represents the ‘Goi’ part of the people while the angels represent the ‘Holy’ side of the equation.

The pillars are the Kingdom of Priests and the hangings are the Holy Nation.

Together, they represent the ideal version of the Jewish people.

Going back to my one-sentence description (or at least a paraphrase): The Mishkan is the representations of the revelations of Hashem within representations of the people themselves.

Does it stop there? Of course not. Let’s dig into a few details and show how.

I’m going to go into the details of the articles and the Mizbeach this week. I’ll go into the details of the buildings after the sin of the calf – when they come up again. We’ll do it this way in part because this reading is all about that divine perspective and these are the articles of the divine. The structure of the Mishkan is about the nation and so it is the first focus of the actual construction.

You’ll notice when the actual building occurs. Betzalel and the people build the building first and the articles later, but here the articles come first because this is Hashem telling Moshe what to build.

Okay. The Aron has two parts. This is fitting because the Jewish people were not the only beings present. There were also the Keruvim (or angels). And so, the Torah presents two articles for the Aron. The Aron itself, the people’s part is represented by shittim wood wrapped in Gold. As I said before, gold represents the heavenly or divine. Silver, for future reference, represents the human reflection of the divine. Just think of the holy half-shekel that we give when we are counted, or the sun and moon. Shittim literally means grudge and represents the limitations of humanity.

The wood covered in gold shows the human, the limited human, in the presence of the divine while the gold-only cover represents the purely holy. The Aron represents the Jewish people at Har Sinai while the cover represents the Keruvim.

The table has the same materials, but no cover because there were no Keruvim there.

Both have a Zar of gold. It is translated as a ‘crown’, but it literally means ‘foreign.’

In both cases, the Zar is around the top of the article. It represents just how foreign that which was above the people actually was.

Just like the Keruvim, the Menorah itself just gold. The Menorah is a symbol of a unique divine power. Plus, the people weren’t there – only Moshe.

One more thing about the materials of the Keruvim and the Menorah. They are beaten. There is this idea of Kasha – the word that’s used. IT means something that is difficult. Just as Hashem Yotzer HaAdam, wills humankind into being, the way people will the divine into our world is Kashe. It can mean hammering, but it also means difficulty. By exercising our physical effort, we can bring the divine into our world.

Through this basic analysis of the materials, we can see how they are used to further represent the revelations.

What about the dimensions. I’ve never gone down this path before. I’ve kind of ignored the dimensions in the past. But I’m trying to explore something new each year and this year I decided it was the dimensions.

I drilled myself about these dimensions from every which angle. I couldn’t figure out any connections. I asked for help. No dice. And then, just before I woke up a few days ago, I think I realized what was going on.

The Aron is 2.5 by 1.5 by 1.5. In other words, seen from in front or from on top it has a dimension of 5/3. In decimals, this is 1.666 ad infinitum. The Luchot – the Two Tablets – go inside this box. Like the other divine elements – think of the Keruvim and Menorah – they don’t have exact dimensions. What we do know is that they fit inside this box.

What can these dimensions and ratios tell us? I looked at meanings of words, other uses of similar distances, concepts of time and so on. I got nowhere useful. I could only construct highly complex, and thus (for me at least) increasingly less meaningful, concepts.

Then I realized that the ratio is key. See, 3/5 is one of the lowest order approximations of the Golden Ratio. This is also called the Divine Proportion or Phi. I’m not going to delve into pseudoscientific ideas of how appealing it is or how approximations of it appear to show up in nature in various places.

I’m going to stick with the core mathematics.

The golden ratio is the ratio between a long distance and a short distance when the sum of the two distances has the same ratio to the long distance.

It doesn’t come across well in a podcast, so if you’re curious about the Golden Ratio look it up. There is lots of material about it.

What’s important mathematically is that the Golden Ratio is the least rational number. This doesn’t mean it’s crazy. It means it is hardest to approximate with a ratio. It is thus the hardest to represent in reality.

Take Pi, themost famous irrational number. 22/7 is a common and reasonably close representation of a ratio that can’t actually exist in this world. In order to get more precise approximations, you keep raising the numbers. Say to 355/133. These ratios will converge towards Pi over time. We can approximate how close they are.

Phi (which is another name for the Golden Ratio), converges more slowly than any other irrational number. It requires bigger numbers – bigger denominators and numerators – in order to have an equally accurate ratio. Your dimensions must be represented by ever more precisely cut ratios to get close to the actual value of the Golden Ratio.

Mathematicians, feel free to correct me in the comments, if I got the details wrong. But let me ask you a question: if you wanted to physically represent something that was beyond the physical, what better way could there be that making a box that just contains the least physically possible of all ratios?

The Luchot go into a box that is one of the simplest approximations of a number that it is least possible to presented in reality. The Luchot have no measurements in the Torah, but their proximity to this impossible ratio is itself a representation of something beyond the physical realm.

The dimensions do not approximate phi on all sides. Aside from being impossible, it is the primary faces that have this ratio. Which faces? The face towards the Kohanim who enter the Kadosh Kadoshim has this dimension. And the top – the face towards Heaven – does as well.

Okay, let’s move on to the table. It’s dimensions are related, but different. It is 2 by 1 by 1.5. Instead of 2.5 by 1.5 by 1.5. Here, we slip from the mathematical – which describes some sort of reality beyond our reality – and into the linguistic.

The dimensions are described using three words. There is length, אָרְכָּהּ (Arka), width, רָחְבָּהּ (Rachbah) and height קֹמָתָה. (Komatah)

Length is used elsewhere in the Chumash to describe time. Think of “So that your days may be long on the land”. Width is used to describe space or size in the present tense. Yitzchak names a well Rechovot because Hashem made ‘room’ for him and he would be fruitful in the land. Here we use the same idea in modern English. Montana has ‘wide’ open spaces. Finally, the word for height literally means to stand up or to have a presence. A Makom is a place, but also a word to describe the presence of Hashem. The same thing exists in modern English: “Stand up and be counted.”

Measured this way, the Ma’an has a little less time than the revelation at Har Sinai. We remember the Ma’an, but it is no longer an active part of our lives. So: the 2.5 is lowered to 2.

The Ma’an only gave enough for a person to live for one day. There was no plenty, there was no extra in the present tense. So: the 1.5 is lowered to 1.

But in terms of the presence of the people – both are similar. The people are equally there in both cases. They stand up in the same way. With the revelation on Har Sinai the people seem to see the shofar, a sound. With the Ma’an, they see the Glory of G-d. So, both are 1.5. In keeping with this, the cover on the Aron has no height.

It doesn’t represent the people standing up – it represents the Angels getting’ down. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

In this way, the measurements of the table and the cover are a riff off the measurements of the Aron itself. They both have context because of the Aron. They are a derivative of it.

They are derivative in another sense. Where the first dimensions have a mathematical meaning, the alternate translations of length, width and height provide almost a meaning in physics. These words are describing size, time and presence. Just like I’m not mathematician, I’m no physicist. But as I understand, there is no conception of space beyond where there is some sort of material presence. There is no universe beyond the universe. Presence and time, rather than being afterthoughts, are the building blocks of reality. They are the building blocks of size.

Now for the Menorah. The Menorah doesn’t have dimensional measurements. At first this might seem odd, but the Menorah is an entirely different kind of revelation. Instead of having dimensions, it has a weight in gold. It is a כִּכָּר (Kikar).

The word used for the measurement of the Aron and the Table is Amah. We translate it as a cubit. The word is used for a few things like the length of a forearm. Most interesting to me is the context of Yishmael. His descendants are described as having princes for their אֻמֹּתָם (UmmoTam). Most translations call them nations or tribes. The Shvatim of Israel are based on patrilineal relationships. The Umotom relationship would suggest a delineation by mothers as Imma – the root for the word – is also the word for mother. In a way, Hagar is more important to Yishmael’s existence than Avraham. Because she prayed in order to have honor in the face of Sarah, she stood up for Yishmael. She protected Yishmael in a way Avraham didn’t. This connection to motherhood is tremendously fitting. Now, all of Israel could be considered an Um. We share mother, unlike the tribes, which are patrilineal. Note that this is not the standard formulation of Am Yisrael, which is spelled with an Eyin not an Alef.

An Amma is thus both a personal and national measurement. It is a human measurement.

It can’t measure the Menorah – which is a divine representation. It also can’t measure the Keruvim. The Keruvim (which have no physical presence in our world) have no measurement at all. But the Menorah – the burning bush – has a presence, just not one we would put in human terms. It is measured.

It is just measured in terms of a Kikar.

So what does the Kikar symbolize? To understand this, we need to move from the linguistic to the metaphorical.

In the Chumash, Kikar is used in two interesting contexts. It describes a loaf of bread in the wave offering and it describes the fertile plain of S’dom.

What is the symbolism of the burning bush? It burns without being consumed. The Menorah represents another aspect of physical impossibility.

So, what does a Kikar have to do with that?

Well, the table represents the revelation of the Ma’an, in which the people got bread in the midbar (the desert). Hashem created something from nothing. He created bread and food where there was no well-watered plain. Both are hinted at by the word Kikar – it is after all a loaf of bread and a well-watered plain. The Ma’an is an instance of the power represented by the Menorah.

Just as the the table makes sense in the context of the Aron, the weight of the Menorah makes sense in the context of the Ma’an.

Looked at through another lens, while the revelation of the Menorah came first, causality from Hashem’s perspective runs in the opposite direction. Hashem’s starting point – or the reason everything was initiated – was the giving of the Torah. But in order for the giving of the Torah to occur, the people had to see Hashem, for which the Ma’an and the Lechem Panim were necessary. Finally, in order for that to happen, Moshe had to experience the revelation of the Burning Bush.

In a more general sense, what I’m getting at is that none of the materials are arbitrary and none of the measurements are arbitrary. The wood and the gold capture the essence of the revelations and the measurements do too. They all have symbolic connections – from the other-reality of the luchot to the lesser revelation of the Ma’an to the core miraculousness of the Menorah.

As we get into the Kohanim’s clothing we’ll see how the different materials work and you can see how rings and connections and other aspects I didn’t cover have their meanings.

Before I leave the articles, there is one more thing I want to touch on. The first two articles have poles used to carry them. the first two articles. On one level, these represent national revelations and so the poles represent the nation carrying them with them. The Menorah is different because it is a personal revelationand so it has no poles.

But the Menorah is different in a more practical way. The Kikar, or talent was probably between 70 and 110 pounds. Gold is very dense, so in terms of area, 90 pounds of gold would be about 130 cubic inches. This is actually quite small. A basketball is three times as large.

A kikar – or loaf – is a pretty decent comparison.

If you beat it out, put in branches and compensate for a lower rate of purity in ancient times, you might just have a beautiful – and petite – representation of a bush. A burning bush.

The Menorah might have been heavy but it was small. It was, so to speak, personal-sized.

And so it didn’t need poles.

Apparently, the Second Temple version which we see in the Arch of Titus was quite a bit bigger.

I didn’t originally write this in the podcast, but there are two more things I want to share about the Menorah. First, Hashem says that you should make them after the pattern as shown on the mount. If the them is referring to the articles as a whole, it makes sense. But if it is referring to the branches of the Menorah, it also makes sense. Moshe, after all, saw the Burning Bush on a mountain. The second thing I want to talk about is the branches of the Menorah. We have the Shabbat serving as the centerpiece of the week. The last three days are preparation of the Shabbat while the first three days are blessed by it. The Shabbat illuminates and raises up the week while the week serves as the basis for the Shabbat itself.

There is a tremendous amount of fun imagery going on with the Menorah.

There is one more article I want to dive in to before we close. That is the Mizbeach. The altar. The Mishkan isn’t a fixed representation of Hashem dwelling within the people. It is a place for action. It is a place for drawing close to Hashem. We bring offerings, closed Korbanot – or closenessers – within the Mishkan to draw closer to G-d.

There is only one Mizbeach in this parsha, the bronze altar. It is bronze, or Nachash. In the Bronze Age, Nachash was the metal of tools, or practicality. The Bronze altar was a tool. Shittim wood covered by copper was a practical purpose wrapped around a human core.

The altar is square – when looked at from the top – but from the side it is 3/5. This should be familiar after our Aron discussion. It has that same approximation of the Golden Ratio. This ratio exists on all the sides, but not the top.

It is as if, from a human perspective, the Altar rises towards other reality, but from the divine perspective it is perfectly square – it is perfectly rational. 

To me, this defines the offerings themselves.

We slaughter an animal, we give a life. We burn parts or all of that animal. It seems like waste and destruction, from a material – a human – perspective. Just think about the number of animals we slaughter on an annual basis. About 77 billion animals are slaughtered for food each year. Raised up with very difficult lives. But we don’t see waste in that. Nonetheless, we have a very difficult time with animal offerings in the time of the third Beit Hamikdash.

It doesn’t make sense to us.  

But just as with the slavery and Exodus, what the altar’s design is telling us is that what seems destructive and irrational to us can, from a divine perspective, make perfect sense.

Okay…. Enough about the structure. Let’s make a run at the other faces of Torah.

Inspirational

To me the inspiration of this parsha is itself quite practical. To many, these readings may seem like detailed schematics with meaning hidden to all. But the representations, on a very basic level, are extremely concrete. A lot of the symbolism in Torah is like this. It is, so to speak, down to earth.

In our lives, we can only really work in the physical world. But we can still represent the spiritual world within it. We can make the spiritual world real, even using only physical tools and, as indicated by the beating of the Menorah, a little bit of elbow grease.

So if you despair of the strength of your spiritual connection, if you struggle with the magic of Kavanah and prayer and mysticism, don’t worry about it. The Mishkan shows us that even if we don’t have those things, we can still make a place for Hashem to dwell within our lives.

Through Holy Work, we can still make a place for Hashem.

Political

My political face is actually about last week’s reading. I wanted to make a special podcast, but I simply didn’t have the time. In Parshat Mishpatim, we have a commandment to relieve the donkey of our enemy. It is struggling under a heavy burden, we have to help it. The burden is not the donkey’s fault. The correlation isn’t perfect, but this reminded of broad-based economic sanctions. All too often, they punish the donkey – the people carrying the load for the evil leadership of their nations. The leaders may hardly notice the sanctions. Unless you are dealing with people who aren’t actually evil, sanctions almost never change the course of that leadership and they almost never rid a nation of it.

Just think of Cuba, Iraq and North Korea.

In the case of Iran, sanctions do have a practical benefit. The lack of cash has meant that Iran has had a much harder time funding their militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Remember, these militias operate on a principle of charity and violence. They buy loyalty where they can’t acquire it by love or fear. So the sanctions limit Iran’s power outside of her borders. But they do nothing about the heart of the problem.

Iran has a beautiful shadow game of a government. There are elections, but only for permitted candidates. There’s a Parliament and a President chosen by the people, but there is also a Council of Guardians and a Supreme Leader who choose one another. This shadow game deflects the anger of the people and helps keep the system in power and in place. It is beautiful designed.

But there is also an emergency backstop. It is called the Basij militia. It is a quasi-military force of religious fanatics called out by the regime when resistance is too broad. When the police and the army may not be trusted, the Basij militia can be trusted to throw acid in the faces of women, machine gun crowds from the backs of motorcycles and dispose of the bodies of thousands of protestors.

It is the Basij militia that holds the government in power even in the face of broad protests. The people want to react to the sanctions, but they can’t. It is this militia that the states of Eastern Europe – and even Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, lacked.

Perhaps it is time we helped the donkey, instead of just increasing its load. Israel clearly already works very closely with many in Iran. But we don’t work with the masses. Why don’t we start a program of smuggling weapons into the country? Not Israel, it could be Israel or Saudi Arabia or anybody else. We wouldn’t smuggling them for the purpose of the occasional assassination. No, we would smuggle them in for the purposes of arming the donkey. Of giving a means of resistance to entire neighborhoods of Tehran and other major cities. If we do this, then the next time the Basij are called out. The next time they are called on to rescue the regime from the people, the people can respond.

Common Question

I only have one common question this week. Two readings ago, Hashem said that we make an altar of stone or earth – and nothing that a tool has touched. How can we have a copper altar here? Theanswer comes up in the building of the Mishkan itself. The work is called מְלֶאכֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ: holy work. This context is the only time work and holiness are juxtaposed. The work done for the Mishkan is not the work of tools and change. It is not the work of chol – or the profane and secular. Because it is commanded by Hashem and precisely described by Hashem, it is holiness itself. There is no chol, there is – from a symbolic perspective – human tool undermining the holiness of the Mishkan or the Altar.

Conclusion

Once again, if these ideas appeal to you, feel free to borrow or steal them at will. The purpose of this podcast is to help people appreciate the beauty and power and the sublime levels of meaning in the Torah. These ideas, I hope, accomplish this, no matter whose name they are shared in.

As a fun aside, this interpretation of the Menorah – which I derived myself but later found in Christian sources – has become far more standard and acceptable in the roughly ten years since I started sharing it with a few people here and there.

Mission accomplished.

Thank you for listening and Shabbat Shalom.

Joseph

A few comments thought of while recording:

  • From the front, looked at by the people, even the Table approximates the irrational and the impossible.
  • The Keruvim are seen with Hashem. They look down on the people. The Keruvim on the altar do the same, looking down at our experience of the revelation.
  • Earlier (and later) Keruvim guard Gan Eden. This is another reminder of what Hamshech Hayovel might have meant.

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