Rabbi Dov Zemel, Ed.D
Former Rosh Kollel in Atlanta (2002-2006)
Currently Customer Service Manager at Vernet Technologies and Rebbe at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah
The Book of Exodus or Sefer Shmot
The Book of Exodus is an exciting and significant one due to its content and its impact for all time. It is also the subject of a meaningful and crucial debate that occurred between two giants of Biblical exegesis.
A hint of the controversy and confusion emerges at the onset – Why is the book called ‘Exodus’ when so much of it is concerned with the building of the Mishkan? In fact, forty percent of Sefer Shmot is engaged in the building of this temporary edifice.
We know that nothing is haphazard in the Torah. Therefore, we are confronted by the additional conundrum-How are the events of the exodus of Egypt connected to the details of the Mishkan and its erection?
Additionally, it’s interesting to note that the Torah goes into such detail about the Mishkan. When you consider the many details that the Torah does not share with us about mitzvot Jewish people were to engage in on an almost daily basis, you wonder why the Torah spends such valuable space on a building that would only exist for a small percentage of Jewish History. After all, the Torah omits a detailed composition of tefillin and how to appropriately perform shechita.
The answer to some of these questions is offered by the great biblical commentator, the Ramban, in his Introduction to Sefer Shmot. There he presents a general theme for the book:
Sefer Shmot is dedicated to the first exile and the redemption from it…Even when they left Egypt and were freed from the house of bondage, they were still considered exiled…Only once they arrived at Mount Sinai and made the Mishkan, and Hashem returned and his Shekhinah dwelled amongst them, then they were restored to the standing of their fathers…Then they were considered redeemed. That is why the book concludes with the completion of the Mishkan with Hashem’s honor permeating it always.
Thus, we can comprehend the connection between the Jews leaving Egypt and the erecting of the Mishkan. The Ramban’s comments show why the building of the Mishkan was not simply a temporary building, but an indispensable stage in the development of the nation of Israel. The culmination of our redemption was not our being rescued from bondage, our receiving of His Torah, or our entering the Promised Land. It was when Hashem’s Shechinah (divine presence) dwelled amongst his people.
But could an intentionally temporary dwelling be considered the culmination of the process? Rambam provides the key to answering this question. In his Mishnah Torah, Rambam explains that the Beit Hamikdash has progressed through different stages: The Mishkan in the desert and in Gilgal, the more permanent Temples that followed in Shiloh, Nov and Givon, and finally the Beit Hamikdash that Shlomo built in Yerushalaim. Rambam enumerates the required characteristics that all of these buildings possessed. Thus, the building of the Mishkan represents the onset of Hashem’s Shehkinah dwelling amongst us and a model for how the subsequent Temples would be constructed. It is now clear why such detail was required. The profound concepts at the basis of constructing the Mishkan were instructive for the construction of the subsequent Temples.
However, not everyone seems to agree that the building was this indispensable stage. In this week’s Torah reading, another preeminent commentator, Rashi makes a startling claim. He states:
The order of the Torah is not necessarily chronological. The incident of the Golden Calf occurred many days prior to the commandment to build the Mishkan. (31:18)
One of the current respected Biblical scholars of our own time, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag (Yeshivat Har Eztion), understands Rashi as suggesting that the Mishkan would not have been built at all had the Golden Calf incident not occurred. When the Torah instructed Moshe to include a cow in the selection of items required to consecrate the Mishkan, Rashi explains that this was: To atone for the incident of the Calf. (29:1)
Rashi feels so strongly that the existence of the Mishkan is a consequence of the sin of the Golden Calf that he contends that the seven chapters that preceded the incident in the text occurred chronologically afterwards. Rashi’s understanding of the purpose of the Mishkan apparently does not comport with the Ramban’s view of Sefer Shmot. Ramban seems to perceive the Mishkan as an intended stage in the natural development and redemption of the Jewish people, and Rashi perceives it differently.
Rashi’s theory is based upon the proposition that the existence of the Mishkan was brought about due to the failings of the Jewish people. Hashem mercifully permitted us to atone for our sins and generated an alternative path conducive for us to serve Him and to address the imperfections that had led us to sin with the Golden Calf. Through building the Mishkan, we now had a physical entity toward which we could focus certain religious energies until we reached the land of Israel, when we would build the Beit Hamikdash.
Accordingly, Rashi concludes that the details the Torah provides for the Mishkan’s composition were critical to comprehending how this building was to assist us in channeling the human frailties that led us to sin with the Golden Calf in a positive direction. The insights that Hashem conveys to us in specifying the Mishkan’s blueprints should, according to Rashi, continue to guide us far beyond the Mishkan’s relatively short duration.
In reflecting upon this dispute, my brother Fred suggested an insightful observation. Rashi and Ramban may have debated the root cause of the Mishkan’s existence, however they both understood the Mishkan as a critical “stepping stone” in the development of the Jewish people. The Torah’s detailed description emphasizes to us the importance of appreciating the stepping stones that Hashem provides for us. The challenge is not to overlook the significance of our journeys throughout life, but rather to study them and utilize them to raise ourselves to greater heights.