Torah | Reconnecting with the ancient Mishkan


Exodus 38:21-40:38

l Kings 7:51-8:21

We’ve reached the final portion in the Book of Exodus, which chronicles the construction of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary) by Moses together with its chief architect, Bezalel. It details all the funds and materials used in its construction.

The story began in the beginning of the book with high drama, with the Jews’ crushing enslavement by the Egyptians, Moses and Aaron’s confrontations with Pharaoh, and the numerous miraculous plagues leading to the great Exodus. It continued with God endowing our ancestors with manna from heaven and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Jews were charged with becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation by bringing the Torah to the world.

Exodus concludes with a portion devoted to accounting and blue-collar construction with levels of minute detail that seem inconsistent with its stated purpose. A spiritual oasis and point of contact between God and humanity? The Torah is not a history book, and certainly not an architectural digest. It is primarily a book of religious instruction. It’s been thousands of years since the Mishkan and the two subsequent Temples have ceased to function. What is its relevance for our times?

One of the most important finds after World War II, in the Warsaw Ghetto rubble, was a manuscript of Shabbat sermons given in the ghetto from 1939-1942. It had been hidden in early 1943, by perhaps the last Hassidic rebbe of the ghetto, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. He attached a request that whoever finds it should forward it to Israel to be published in the event that the finder didn’t survive. Rabbi Shapira was sadly murdered along with the last remnants of Warsaw’s Jews in November of 1943, but his book, “Torah From the Years of Wrath,” was discovered while laying a new foundation for a building. It was published in Israel and retitled “The Holy Fire.”

It was on the Shabbat of March 9, 1940, that the rebbe, while studying the portion of Pekudei, shared with his students and followers a revolutionary idea. He began by quoting the talmudic account (Berachot 49b) of a conversation between Moses and Bezalel. Moses instructed the young artisan to first build the ark of the covenant, then the menorah, then the altar, etc., before finally detailing the dimensions of the outer structure. Bezalel questioned the order, saying, usually one builds a house, then acquires furniture. Can it be that perhaps you reversed the order? Moses replied that indeed he had, and praised the young architect by saying, that his name, which means “in the shadow of God,” was most fitting, as he must have been listening all along.

Rabbi Shapira wonders, how is it possible that the young novice Bezalel, was more in tune with God’s instruction than Moses himself?

His answer was that when one tries to look at the sun, it is impossible to gaze at it without shielding one’s eyes. It is only by darkening and putting oneself “in the shadows” that one can attempt to glimpse the great light. Moses was able to see the light of God clearly, as one would look through clear glass. However, all of humanity, including the greatest of the prophets, were only able to envision God, by gazing “through a glass darkly.”

Therefore, he concludes, Bezalel was able to see God in a way that Moses could not, specifically because he was in the shadows. He had an insight that Moses himself was unable to relate to.

In a remarkable expression of defiant faith, the rabbi related this to his current predicament. While barely holding on to life in the Warsaw Ghetto, he wrote, we are trying to see God through the darkest glass imaginable. Yet, we are also granted a perspective of the Almighty that can only be seen and understood through a distorted dark glass, a vision even greater than that of Moses.

The word Pekudei, translated as counting, also means “to be remembered.” We have been studying the details of the Temple for thousands of years, including in the gulags and ghettos. The Temple represents a time when we were able to see God clearly, unobstructed, the way Moses saw. We have been assured that as long as we remember and keep it alive in our hearts, we shall see it return. We pray the time should come soon when the dark glass turns once again translucent.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]


Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].