Talk about extremes. A couple of weeks ago, we were having an out-of-communal-body experience, watching thunder and hearing lightning (things were a little unusual that day), experiencing the ultimate God moment: Revelation at Sinai.
This week? We’re in T’rumah, aka “Shop class 101: “How to build a sanctuary.” And if the details were sketchy back at the mountain, the Torah more than makes up for it in this next section of the book of Exodus. For chapters and chapters, we get details. Lots of details.
But it makes sense. Midrash tells us the Jewish people and God “got married” at Sinai, so it’s natural that now we need to find a place to live. Seeing as how we are a transient people, and our formation as such took place out in the wilderness, which, to this day, we’re not sure where that was exactly, our “home” has to be portable. So God said, “va’asuli mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham” (Make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8)
Years ago I took a class with Rabbi Alicia Magal. It was called “The History and Mystery of Synagogue Ark-itecture”, and she taught about the way modern synagogues and Torah Arks still reflect the layout of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and even up to Second Temple. Many artists have tried to sketch out what the Mishkan looked like. You can search for them, or see a picture of how the Mishkan might have looked here.
There was an outer court that separated the regular “chol” (sand) from the holy sand. The whole community could be outside the outer court, but as you crossed into the Mishkan space, personnel restrictions began to kick in; i.e., who could go where and when. Once you got into the inner court, there was more space that led up to the holiest spot, the Ark of the Covenant. The space had some furniture – an altar for burnt offerings, a washstand, a table, etc. Each time you got closer to the holiest spot, there were more barriers to cross, and fewer and fewer people were allowed past these points. Finally, one (like Moses) would reach the Ark itself, which was behind a curtain. This was the focus of the entire structure.
Now, think about almost every synagogue you’ve ever been in. You walk into a building, open to anyone. Then you walk through another door, the “holier” spot, the sanctuary. Then you see some furniture, maybe a Torah reading table, and maybe a bima, where the Rabbi or Cantor stand, in front of the ark. Not everyone in the congregation usually stands there. The priests who presided over the offerings are now the clergy who preside over the service. Indeed,the word “service” (avodah) which is often used for the word liturgy, takes the place of the burnt offerings. The furniture of the place reflects that. Then you may walk up (literally) to the Ark itself, which is usually covered by a door, and then there’s a curtain…..and then there is the Torah itself, the focus of the entire room.
It’s as if the MIshkan from the wilderness has been laid on its side, and telescoped. The ark-itecture is almost the same. In fact, the Rabbis said the Mishkan was our own little Mt Sinai, replicated there in the wilderness, to be taken with us wherever we went.
Certainly we can’t duplicate the experience at Sinai every time we come into the synagogue. For some of us, we may even get closer to that experience outside the synagogue. But the intent is clear: we needed some way of holding on to the close encounter with the Divine, and the Mishkan that we begin to read about in this week’s parasha, gives us an actual blueprint for how to do that.