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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

“So all the work on the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed. The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses … The Israelites had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them” (Exodus 39:32; 42-43).

With these words, the long section dealing with the construction of the Tabernacle reaches its culmination. As several commentators point out, there is a precise linguistic parallel between the making of the sanctuary and the creation of the universe:

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“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day, G-d had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-3).

The key words in both passages are ‘completed’ (vayechulu/vatechel) and ‘work’ (melachah). Moses’s blessing of the Israelites parallels G-d’s blessing of the seventh day. Just as the seventh day is a moment in time which points to something beyond time, so the people Israel are a nation in history that points to something beyond history.

What blessing did Moses gives the Israelites at that moment? According to tradition, Moses said, “May it be G-d’s will that the Divine presence rests in the work of your hands.” The Israelites, the same tradition says, replied, “Let the beauty of the Lord our G-d be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands” (Psalms 90:17).

Drawing on the parallel between the making of that Tabernacle and the creation of the universe, the Yemenite Midrash HaGadol, offers a daring suggestion:

 

R. Shimon ben Lakish said, “The sanctuary was more precious than the creation of the universe, for the creation of the universe involved neither labor nor effort, and no creature assisted [G-d]. Instead, ‘By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made’ (Psalms 33:6). But the sanctuary was made through the active involvement of Moses and the Israelites. Bezalel and his disciples, and Oholiab and his disciples, were actively involved, as it is said: ‘So all the work on the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed. The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses.’ ”

 

Beneath these various phenomena is one undisputable and radical fact: whereas the Torah describes the creation of the universe with the utmost brevity, it describes the making of the sanctuary at exhaustive length. As I have put it elsewhere, the Torah is G-d’s book about humanity, not humanity’s book about G-d. Its primary interest is not the home G-d makes for mankind, but the home mankind makes for G-d. Moses’s blessing, despite its specific context, applies to the totality of Judaism. It is through our deeds that our work becomes a vehicle for the Divine presence.

James Kugel sees the construction of the Tabernacle as a metaphor for the whole of Judaism, for life lived in accordance with halacha, Jewish law:

“The purpose is to open up a space, a possibility, in the heart. Once the opening is made, it can be filled … After the people of Israel had been led out of Egypt and slavery, G-d ordered them to build for him a certain structure, called in Hebrew ‘Mishkan’ [Tabernacle] … Now to us this demand might at first seem strange; after all, as Scripture says elsewhere, the heavens themselves cannot contain G-d.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought. He is a professor at YU and NYU.
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