Vayakel: The Walls of the Mishkan
I’d remembered that at some point, I’d delved much more deeply into the structure of the Mishkan itself. But as I searched my notes, I couldn’t find anything anywhere. I knew I’d done something; I just couldn’t work out where it had gone. Eventually, I looked on my own website and found a podcast without any attached transcript. I listened and discovered that a year ago, I had indeed recorded an episode about the Mishkan’s construction. But I had only recorded it. I was blind at the time (well, I could have opened my eyes, but I wouldn’t have seen much and it would have hurt like heck). I literally couldn’t write down any notes. I fine tuned the concepts without access to a Chumash and then recorded the episode entirely from memory while laying in bed. It feels like it has been a long time since that particularly miserable time (I was both mostly blind and largely deaf in one ear in early March 2021 – and I was also in a lot of pain). Anyway, I listened to the episode, took notes, and can now share the following in written form.
I’ve made a few corrections in this round of analysis. You know, being able to actually read things helps 😊
As I’ve covered before, the Mishkan has a basic design. G-d dwells within the people. The people, as a Mamlechet Kohanim (Kingdom of Priests) are represented by the 53 internal pillars and 56 external pillars. These pillars represent the 53 human enforced laws in Parshat Mishpatim and the 56 outcomes for those laws. They are also a Goi Kadosh (Holy People). A Goi has no clear form, unlike a Kingdom. The Goi Kadosh is represented by the fabrics which have Keruvim (angels) on them. With the pillars and fabrics combined, the structure of the Mishkan represents the people. As I’ve covered in recent weeks, the articles of the Mishkan represent Hashem through revelation. The Menorah is the Sneh (a bush that burns but is never consumed). the Table and Showbread are both Hashem’s table (to which the elders were invited) and the Ma’an. The Aron and Luchot are the revelation on Har Sinai.
I’ve gone into the dimensions and materials of the articles in prior weeks. What I haven’t covered is the dimensions and materials of the building itself.
So here goes – in the order presented in this parsha:
The initial curtains are made of:
- Sheish Mazzar (representing human effort, fine linen was the most labor-intensive fabric)
- Techelet (purity – no death in the sky)
- Argamon (honor – this fabric is used to cover the ashes of korbanot)
- Tola’at shani (trust – the Tola’at was the worm that ate the ma’an showing man to trust Hashem)
Each of the 10 curtains was 28 amot by 4 amot. 28 is half of 56. I believe these numbers are related back to the laws. In a way, these curtains merge the concepts of Goi Kadosh and Mamlechet Kohanim. How? Each measurement and count can be related to laws/sayings. There are 10 curtains, relating to what is commonly called the 10 commandments. 28 is half of 56 – the 56 outcomes of the human enforced laws. And the 4 could represent the four laws that follow the ‘Ten Commandments’ but are delivered before the laws of Mishpatim and govern the character of our relationship with Hashem. The curtains are coupled 5 and 5, reinforcing the Ten Commandments connection as they too come in 5 and 5.
The word for curtain is יריע. The shoresh implies evil or destruction. It is an odd word for a holy curtain. Laws are limiting and thus limit opportunity. The very need for laws is caused by the fact that a world without consequence leads to complete destruction – as seen prior to the Flood. Laws, enforced laws, are a negative consequence. The naming lines up with this.
The curtains have loops of techelet, their purity enables the laws to be intertwined – to form a cohesive whole. They than have fifty clasps of gold. Gold represents the divine. So divinity and purity link the laws together, making the Mishkan one.
The above is admittedly a bit weak. I’m just short on other things 28, 4 and 10 can represent and so it seems to make sense. And I enjoy how the law is folded into the holiness through these numbers.
The next level of curtains are the goatskin curtains. They are for protection and there are 11 of them. The goatskin is a hint to the symbolism. Goats are used to represent the rambunctious Jewish people. So, to me, these 11 represents the 11 tribes aside from Levi. It is their job to protect the Mishkan. The Leviim aren’t a part of this and so aren’t captured in the goatskins numeracy. These curtains are linked by copper – the metal of practicality.
Each curtain is 30 x 4. The length seems practical – the Mishkan was 10 amot wide and 10 tall. You’ll need 30 amot to cover it. The width of 4 enables the curtains to be layered over one another. The total length would otherwise be 44 amot while the building is 30 amot in length. This basic overlapping suggests an interdependence of the tribes in protecting the Mishkan. But why 4 and not 5, or even 3 (for a minimal overlap)? One idea that comes to mind is harkening back to those laws that govern our relationship with Hashem. The tribes’ defense of the Mishkan should be based on those laws and the 4 represents this.
People have the most fun with these. There are no dimensions. The first set are the skins of rams, which typically represents fear of Hashem (think of the Akeidah). They are Adamim (the red of potential). The second set are made of Tachash. Some say this is unicorn, others suggest it is some extinct animal. Whatever it is, it is mysterious. Typically, in my reading, when something like this is totally mysterious that is the point. The final layer of protection isn’t provided by the people. The goatskin only represents our belief and effort in protecting the Mishkan. The real protection comes first from our fear of Hashem and its potential and then ultimately by some mysterious thing we can not control of influence. The Tachash represents Hashem’s protection of our protection of our divine relationship.
The inner pillars are next. As I stated above, these directly represent the laws and there are 53 of them. The pillars are shittim wood – a word that implies a grudge. They represent lowly human emotions. But they are wrapped in gold, in divinity. The laws are just this – humanity wrapped in the divine. The Amah, as we’ve covered before, is an intrinsically human measurement. It is the length of a forearm, representing human action. The context in some places is one of law. These are an amah and a half, I believe, because 1 Amah isn’t enough. Laws require the intersection of people and their actions to take form within a community.
At the base, the pillars are supported by sockets of silver. Silver represents human holiness – it is a reflection of the divine. The clearest example of this is the hammered silver trumpets. G-d commands, and they blow, a human reflection of Hashem’s command. This concept carries through to the half-shekel and many other uses of silver. In classic symbolism, the sun is gold while the moon – reflecting the sun – is silver.
There are bars joining the pillars, five on each side. These could harken back to the 10 commandments. But they could also represent fingers of a hand. Human execution holding the pillars and laws – and thus the lawful society – together. The gold of divinity is used for the rings these gold-wrapped shittim pass through. Divinity connects everything.
Finally, there is a veil and screen across the front. They are made of the same materials/colors as before – representing human effort, purity, honor and trust. The veil has Keruvim, but the outer screen just has colors. There’s an idea that the closer you are to the core of the Mishkan, the closer you are to Hashem. Keruvim (Cherubs) actually means ‘closers’.
The first question is: why have two layers. On the one hand, the 53 inner columns represent the situations that laws deal with while the 56 in the outer courtyard represent the possible outcomes. But the outer courtyard is also much more human in definition. Aside from the inner Mishkan itself, there are no divine articles here. Hashem does not dwell within the outer courtyard. In a way, the outer courtyard is about setting up a situation where Hashem can dwell within the people. The practical aspects of law and the korbanot (offerings) that give life to the relationship are given space here.
This is about the human giving space for the divine.
We can see it in the outer pillars. They are joined not by the multi-colored fabrics represented a wide variety of wonderful characteristics. Instead, they are joined by shiesh mashzar alone – this fine-woven linen. Linen is grown by man, harvested by man and then processed by man. It is the corollary to fine flour I the language of the offerings. The one exception is the front screen – it has all those inner-Mishkan colors – representing an entry into a holier space.
Both the inner and outer screens are woven – the fabrics dip between the two worlds they are the boundary of.
The outer pillars themselves are not coated in gold, but in silver. This is an expression of humanity – far more than the inner pillars which are humanity coated in the divine.
Where the inner pillars are called קרש, a word that appears in no other context, the outer pillars are עמודים (amudim). This word means to stand and shows up in many places. The very first use of this shoresh is when Adam blames Chava for eating of the tree – she was given to me to stand with me. She was supposed to reinforce me. The second use is Avraham standing as the angels eat. That’s nicer. The third is when Avraham stands before Hashem to challenge the destruction of S’dom.
In all cases, there is this sense of standing in service. Even the last case, when Avraham approaches Hashem. Avraham is standing in order to create the space for what comes, when he draws near to Hashem to challenge what is about to occur.
This sort of standing is very common, very human and the foundation of so many of our relationships.
The outer pillars are only 5 amot high. As with the five rods along the inner Mishkan, I think this can represent the human and human action yet again. We are creating a space for the divine relationship.
That said, the overall dimensions are extremely modest. The outer courtyard is only 100 amot by 50 amot (about 50 meters by 25 meters). The entire thing is a bit smaller than a figure skating rink. Of course, a figure skating rink is another example of how a small space can have an outsized influence. Making it bigger wouldn’t make it better.
The Torah divides the outer courtyard into two. One half is human-focused and time-bound (the primary Mizbeach is there), the other half is timeless and divine (inner Mishkan, menorah etc…). The directions give a hint of this. The ‘west’ side is literally the ‘Yam’ side. The side of the sea, which represents spirituality (waters above and waters below and all that). The ‘east’ side has a compound name ‘קֵדְמָה מִזְרָחָה’. This can mean ‘east east.’ But קֵדְמָה refers to what is ‘earlier’ or ‘first’ while מִזְרָחָה refers to citizenship or a sense of belonging. The earlier sense of belonging side is the human side, the Yam side is the holy side. We enter from the human side – from the place we are – and we draw closer to the spiritual side. We enter the time-bound side, but progress towards the timeless.
This is the progression of the Mishkan.
In their way, all the dimensions, materials and layout reflect it.
Why Two Versions of the Mishkan?
The following is an adapted excerpt of the speech I gave soon after I sat shiva for my mother. Her Yarzeit is today.
At the beginning of Parshat Vayakel, Moshe told the people that we were not to burn a fire in all our dwellings on the Shabbat day (Ex. 35:3). Fire represents spiritual energy. The burning bush is burning with spiritual energy. The Menorah captures that same idea.
I believe that Moshe was telling us there was no place for G-d’s spiritual expression on the very day in which we are to rest with Him. Our Shabbats would be empty without the Mishkan.
But Moshe didn’t actually tell us to build the Mishkan. He just reminded us that G-d commanded it and told us that the wise would perform the commandment (Ex. 35:4-5). He left the rest up to us. He had to. We had to step up.
And we did.
The people left Moshe’s presence (Ex. 35:30) and then they built the Mishkan themselves. They were driven by noble hearts. They were driven by a desire to be close to G-d. What they built shared the design of the Mishkan Hashem described. But this one was not motivated by G-d’s desire. It was motivated by ours. We were driven by our לבבות נדיבים
In the first telling, the articles of revelation came first (Ex. 25); Hashem wanted to dwell within the people. But in this telling, our curtains and the pillars came first. We made a place for G-d to dwell within us.
In the first telling, the incense altar – which captures emotion – was designed well after the copper one (Ex. 30). But in this telling the incense altar came first. Emotion drove the construction, it did not follow it.
In the first telling, the washbasins were contiguous with the anonymous half shekel. In this telling, the washbasins were made from the women’s mirrors (Ex. 38:8). In this telling, the Kohanim cleansed themselves in the people’s abandonment of vanity.
This is an emotional, human, Mishkan. A Mishkan of repair.
The people brought so much and did so much that Moshe had to tell them it was too much. And once the Mishkan was built, G-d returned to the people. The fire of Hashem, the same fire Moshe said could not dwell among us on Shabbat, came and dwelt within the nation.
And our relationship was repaired.
The building of the Mishkan started with the construction of pillars and the weaving of curtains. It started with communal reinforcement in the face of challenge and with the interweaving of our spiritual gifts. It started with making a place for G-d.
When you think about the inner Mishkan, it was actually smaller than this gym. Incredible things can happen in small places. I believe, as we keep building, as we keep weaving, then we will see more and more of the fire of Hashem in our community, in our people and in our world.
And we will once again realize the fullness of Shabbat.
 Those four laws are: no gods of silver or goal, mizbeach of adama (earth, but also potential) for offerings where Hashem comes and blesses, no hewn stones, no steps. Our relationship with Hashem is to be direct and thankful. And it is to separate creative and holy and we are to ascend to Hashem, not bring Hashem down to us).
Photo by Maite Oñate on Unsplash