The Hebrew language has very particular grammar in relation to masculine and feminine framing. It also distinguishes between the singular and plural to a greater extent than English. In this week’s reading the Torah presents instructions for building the Mishkan and its furnishings. A central part of the nation’s maturation, the construction of the Mishkan appropriately appears in the Book of Exodus, which traces the birth of the nation, its charter and development. Before detailing the specific furnishings the Torah opens with the following verse: “And they shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst.” (Exodus 25:8)
Immediately thereafter instructions are given for the ark, the first of the furnishings on the list. “And they shall make an ark of shitim wood, two and a half cubits its length, one and a half cubits its width and one and a half cubits its height.” (25:10)
There is nothing odd about these two verses – if we view them independently. But they stand out when we read these in the context of the entire body of instructions. The Midrash points out that these are the only directives given in the plural; all other directives are stated in the second person singular. Instructions for designing the showbread table begin with the words ‘And you (singular) shall make…” The Menorah has the same opening, and the sanctuary building also uses a singular directive – “And the Mishkan you (singular) shall make…” Why are these initial instructions presented in the plural, while all others are presented in the singular? Are these first instructions directed at the entire nation while the other furnishings target individual builders?
We may find some help from the Or Hachaim, written by Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar whose life spanned parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, and whose writings are peppered with insights from Kabbalah. In his commentary on the Chumash the Or Hachaim raises a different question on the former verse, “And they shall make for me a holy place and I will dwell in their midst.” Why does the verse here call the Tabernacle by the generic term “holy place,” while thereafter it is referred to as the “Mishkan?” It is unusual that the Torah deviates from identifying it as the Mishkan, and this is especially odd given that this is the first time the Mishkan is mentioned – or does it refer to something other than the Mishkan? The materials listed just before that verse describe all the contributions necessary for the building and its furnishings. What could this reference other than the Mishkan?
The Or Hachaim suggests that this first verse is a general directive that applies at all times and in all places. It means the Mishkan as well, but not only the Mishkan. The verse is teaching us that wherever we are, whatever the circumstances, we must build a holy place. In the wilderness at that particular time the “holy place” was the Tabernacle, and the following directives address and define that building specifically. When King Solomon built the Temple on the Jerusalem hilltop purchased by his father David that was also a fulfillment of this Mitzvah of establishing a holy place, although it was not the Mishkan.
The Or Hachaim’s interpretation of this verse teaches us that we are tasked with this same Mitzvah. We don’t have to be a Moses or a Solomon. We don’t need to replicate the grandeur of those edifices. In fact we are constrained in terms of the functions of our holy places. Since a permanent Temple was built the offerings became restricted to that location, and private altars were no longer permitted. The nature of our worship is necessarily changed in the absence of the Temple. The verse in Deuteronomy (12:9) indicates that the offerings on temporary altars was conditional, and was permitted only until a permanent location would be dedicated: “For at this time you have not yet come to your place of rest and inheritance…”
Our Mitzvah is to dedicate a place for worship and prayer, a place to congregate and together fulfill the will of our Creator, a holy place. When the First Temple was destroyed and the people were marched to exile in Babylonia they established holy places, fulfilling this Mitzvah. When Jews migrated further afield they established holy places. In Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, in Africa and in the Middle East, wherever Jews established themselves they set up a holy place. Not a Mishkan, not a place with Temple offerings, but places for prayer and congregation, for study and communal observance of tradition. This Mitzvah is listed in the plural because it applies to every segment of the Jewish people, in all places and in all circumstances.
We now understand why the general directive of building a “holy place” is presented as a plural order. But a few verses later the Torah again applies the plural directive when instructing the building of the Ark of the Covenant.
Using similar reasoning we can suggest that the Torah is qualifying the earlier Mitzvah of establishing a “holy Place.” The Ark is the home of the Tablets, the word of God, the Torah. When a communal holy place is built, when we establish a synagogue, its center piece must be the Ark of the Covenant. To qualify for this Mitzvah the communal edifice must be a place where the Torah can be housed. Only when this condition is met, when the purpose of the structure is to enable the fulfillment of the Torah, when the structure is guided by the spirit of the Torah, we have then made a true holy place, and we will then merit to have God’s presence among us, as the verse declares in its latter half: “…and I will dwell in their midst.”
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