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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Persistence of Holiness

by Rabbi Michael Gordan (Posted on February 14, 2024)
Topics: Sefer Shemot, Terumah, Torah

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With the beginning of Parashat Terumah, the book of Shemot puts behind it both the exodus and the civil laws of Mishpatim, and launches into its last great theme—the details of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its furnishings and construction. The Mishkan will be an integral part of the camp of b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, as they move through the desert, and will continue to be a presence after they cross the Jordan into Israel.

Although we are familiar with the role the Mishkan played in the desert, its history after the Jews entered the land of Israel is less clear. Just as our parasha addresses the very beginnings of the Mishkan, I’d like to address the apparent end of the Mishkan’s existence. The Gemara in Sotah 9a makes a comment on this point that deserves attention. It discusses David and Moshe, and claims that both were fortunate because enemies never ruled over their handiwork. As proof for King David it brings a verse that can be read to show that the gates of Jerusalem, which David built, were never destroyed but sunk by themselves safely into the sand. As proof for Moshe, the Gemara brings a rabbinic statement that when the First Temple was built, the Mishkan structure was hidden under the tunnels of the Sanctuary.

In the case of David, we can easily understand how the miracle prevented the invading Babylonians from destroying his handiwork, and why the Babylonians would be called David’s enemies. In the case of Moshe, this terminology seems misplaced. The builders of the First Temple, Shelomo and Hiram, were by no means “enemies” of Moshe or the Jewish people. On the contrary, Shelomo believed his efforts marked a continuation of the Mishkan’s purpose, and they were endorsed by God. Our rabbis emphasized this by linking many of the parashiot that describe the building of the Mishkan with haftarot that describe the construction of the Temple. Shelomo and Hiram’s construction is understood as parallel to the construction of Moshe and Bezalel.

An additional question regarding the Gemara’s language is some of the history of the Mishkan that we do know from the later books of the Bible. In particular, the unworthy sons of Eli famously served as priests in the Mishkan during its long sojourn in Shiloh. If Moshe is our model of piety and humility, surely having these priests serving in the Mishkan was an obvious case of “enemies” controlling Moshe’ work. As much as we might like to spare Moshe the chagrin of having these unworthy successors serve in the Mishkan, it’s odd that the rabbis would ignore this fact.

It seems likely that the strong language of the Gemara, describing the builder of the Temple as an “enemy” of Moshe, is intended to heighten the contrast between the stages of development that the Jewish people underwent, and how different the two eras were. The Mishkan in its portability reflected a people still in transition, who needed a God who could travel with them and address needs that would change as their environment changed around them.

With David and Shelomo, however, the Jewish people gained a permanent capital and God gained a home in that capital which his service would be formalized and centralized for all time. This represented a new model of Jewish life, one that we can imagine Moshe would have been suspicious of, especially if we consider how Shemuel, who anointed the first king, warned so sternly about the risks that a monarchy presented.

We are not, however, left with an irreconcilable hostility between different eras of Jewish life and community. The Tosefta in Sotah 13:1 echoes the claim that the Mishkan was in fact hidden when the Temple was built. The Tosefta adds, however, that although Shelomo commissioned numerous menorot (candelabra) and shulchanot (tables) for the Temple, the priests of the First Temple only used the Shulchan and the Menorah that Moshe had constructed—and in fact, these did not need to be anointed with oil because their kedushah, holiness, was for all time.

It’s not always easy for us to distinguish between the essential components of our religion and those that, however important, are contingent on time and circumstances. It may not even be possible for us to do so. However, the lesson in the transition from the Mishkan to the Temple is to trust that even in the face of change, holiness endures and can continue to illuminate and sustain us.

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