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Bezalel Naor

The Tabernacle: A Virtual Erets Israel


A major portion of the book of Exodus is taken up by a painstakingly detailed description of the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert. The magnificent architecture has come to be associated with the name of Bezalel, the chief craftsman or artisan, the mastermind in charge of the design, lo, the “brains” of the operation. (The famous Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, founded by Boris Schatz, was appropriately enough named after this extremely talented Biblical figure.)

Yet the question remains: Why should the Torah lavish so much attention upon the layout of this prototypical temple? Moses is not Frank Lloyd Wright. Whatever the Torah of Moses is (and that is open to some debate), it is not a manual of architecture.

I believe that a solution to this vexatious problem may lie in the famous words of Nahmanides’ Introduction to the Book of Exodus:

The text completed the Book of Genesis, which is the book of the creation of the world and the creation of all the creatures, and the events of the Patriarchs, which are sort of the creation for their seed, for all their events are illustrations, alluding to all that will befall them in the future. And after having completed the creation, the text commenced another book concerning the deeds that proceed from those allusions. The Book of Exodus is focused upon the first exile that was explicitly decreed, and upon the redemption from it. Therefore it begins with the names of those who descended to Egypt, and their number, though that had been written earlier [in the Book of Genesis], for their descent there is the beginning of the exile, from whence it commenced. Now the exile is not terminated until the day of their return to their place and to the level of their forefathers. When they went out of Egypt, though they emerged from the house of bondage, they would yet be considered exiles, for they were in a foreign land, straying in the desert. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, and made the Tabernacle, whereby the Holy One, blessed be He, restored his divine presence to their midst, then they returned to the level of their forefathers, upon whose tents rested the divine mystery, they [i.e., the forefathers] being the Chariot [of God]. And then they were considered redeemed (ve-‘az neheshavu ge’ulim) . Therefore this book concludes with the completion of the Tabernacle and the glory of the Lord filling it perpetually.[1]

The sentence that I have seen fit to italicize is a bold statement indeed. It would be a bold statement coming from any Jew, but all the more so from the pen of Nahmanides! Many years ago, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh in B’nei Berak, the great Torah sage Rabbi El’azar Menahem Man Shach aroused the ire of many when he somewhat minimized the importance of the State of Israel by stating the rather obvious fact that the Jewish People experienced nationhood before ever arriving in the Land. He did not invoke Ramban or Nahmanides cited above. Nahmanides’ statement is perhaps even more daring than that of the Ponevezh Rosh Yeshivah: “And then they were considered redeemed!” Not having stepped foot on the holy soil of the Land of Israel, the People were already reckoned redeemed by virtue of the fact that they had regained their former spiritual height, inasmuch as the divine presence permeated the Tabernacle.

This statement, which seems to call into question the absolute necessity of dwelling in the Land, is all the more surprising having been uttered by none other than Nahmanides. Anyone at all familiar with Nahmanides, knows that among all the Rishonim or medieval giants, he stands out in his declaration of the centrality of the Land of Israel to Judaism. It is Nahmanides who writes at great length in his commentary to the Pentateuch that essentially the performance of the commandments (all the commandments, not just mitsvot ha-teluyot ba-arets, such as the various agricultural laws) pivots on the Land of Israel. He cites the Sifre (‘Ekev) to the effect that in performing commandments outside the Land, we are merely going through the motions, so that these observances not be forgotten.[2] It is also Nahmanides who (in his glosses to Maimonides’ Book of the Commandments) counts dwelling in the Land of Israel as a positive commandment, trailing off on the note that “dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal to all the commandments.”[3] Yet it is this same Nahmanides who issues our curious statement: “And then they were considered redeemed (ve-‘az nehshavu ge’ulim).”

I believe that it is because Nahmanides views the Land of Israel to be central to Judaism, that he is forced to conclude that the Tabernacle is, in so many words, a virtual Erets Israel. (In Hebrew, this logic is formulated as “ve-hi ha-notenet.”) Nahmanides would have been struck by a glaring omission from the Five Books of Moses: the Land of Israel. When the Five Books conclude, the People are yet outside the Land. Conceptually this is unthinkable. The solution? The Tabernacle in the desert constitutes a virtual Land of Israel. And this may be the solution to our original conundrum.

The Talmud states: “Had Israel not sinned, they would have been given only the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua, because it [i.e., the latter] is the value of the Land of Israel (‘erkah shel erets yisrael).”[4] All the remaining books of the Bible, the Prophets and Writings (Nevi’im u-Ketuvim) are non-essential. The Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua are of the essence. But within the very Five Books of Moses there resides a virtual Book of Joshua that, short of actual entry into the Land of Israel, assumes the value of the Land of Israel (‘erkah shel erets yisrael), namely the portion of the Book of Exodus devoted to the work of the Tabernacle. And just as the Book of Joshua will detail ever so lovingly the geography of the Land of Israel, so our section of the Torah will sumptuously, lavishly detail the contours of this Land before the Land: the Mishkan or Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

[1] A reference to Exodus 40:34-35.

[2] See Nahmanides, Leviticus 18:25 (Chavel ed., pp. 109-112).

[3] See Positive Commandment #4 According to the Opinion of Nahmanides.

[4] TB, Nedarim 22b.

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