Torah | Things we carry help connect usto our sacred past

Exodus 38:21–40:38
1st Kings 7:51–8:21 (Ashkenazim)
1st Kings 7:40–50 (Sephardim)


Allow me to begin with an old joke: Three travelers are beginning a long and arduous journey through the desert. Each has been given the choice of one object to bring along the way. One man turns to a fellow traveler and asks, “Why are you carrying that empty jug with you?” He replies, “I’m hoping that we’ll come upon an oasis and then I can save water to carry with me during the journey.” The travelers ask their other compatriot, “What about you? Why are you carrying that straw mat?” The man replies, “I can spread it out when I need to rest and don’t want to be burned by the desert sand. And if the sun beats down too hard, I can carry it over my head for shade.”

“So what about you?” the travelers ask the third man. “Why are you carrying that car door with you?” “Oh it’s simple,” he says. “If it gets too hot, I can always roll down the window.”

While the joke may elicit groans, the punch line runs parallel to this week’s Torah portion and the story of the construction of the Tabernacle. Why does God want the Israelites to build a 100-by-50-cubit Tabernacle connected with bronze sockets and adorned with gold, silver, rare gems and goat hair, and then carry it with them for 39 years in the wilderness? What purpose does the Tabernacle offer beyond the car door?

Nachmanides, the famous 13th-century Catalonian commentator, explains that the Tabernacle was built to capture the experience of Sinai and make it both permanent and portable for the people of Israel. In a world before Instagram, iPhones or even cameras, how could the Israelites possibly pass on the unique moment of Sinai to their descendants?

This challenge became all the more crucial in light of the fact that only two of the original witnesses to Sinai’s revelation — Caleb and Joshua — would endure through the 40 years in the wilderness. By the time the Israelites would enter the Promised Land, the memory of Sinai would have faded from collective memory.

Mary Douglas picks up Nachmanides’ argument in her seminal work “Leviticus as Literature”:

“Both Sinai and the Tabernacle evidence a tripartite division. The summit corresponds to the inner sanctum, or Holy of Holies. The second zone, partway up the mountain, is the equivalent of the Tabernacle’s outer sanctum, or Holy Place. The third zone, at the foot of the mountain, is analogous to the outer court. As with the Tabernacle, the three distinct zones of Sinai feature three gradations of holiness in descending order. Just as Moses alone may ascend to the peak of the mountain, so all but one are barred from the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle.”

In addition, the parochet (screen) in front of the Holy of Holies mirrors the smoke that divides Moses from the priests. And consider the rabbinic calendar, which places Moses’ second ascent of Sinai beginning on the first of Elul and ending 40 days later, on Yom Kippur, the one day of the year when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies. In all, the Mishkan may be interpreted as an attempt to capture the revelation at Sinai in a way that could be carried along with the Israelites.

The Book of Exodus, which we conclude this week, wraps up with two portions on the Tabernacle and its operations, one covering the revelation at Sinai and the golden calf, and then two more on the Tabernacle. By book-ending Sinai’s revelation with four portions on the Mishkan’s construction, we observe a clear connection between this historical moment and the edifice that hearkens to it.

In all, whether it is our grandparents’ Shabbat candle holders, the wedding band we first slipped on underneath the chuppah or our child’s friendship bracelet from camp, we all cling to monuments of sacred moments. Such modern-day talismans allow us to experience at least a fraction of the sacred on a regular basis. Eventually, they become a part of who we are.

Therefore, as we conclude the second book of the Torah, may we find comfort and inspiration from those objects that connect us with our sacred past. And may those items we have received from recent ancestors and beyond remind us of the love and awe with which they were given.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]