Parshat Terumah focusses on the building of the Mishkan, and it is here – and in the following parshiot – where we are given detailed information about the fittings and fixtures of the Mishkan.
Yet it is precisely these details which led our Sages to the conclusion that the Mishkan’s elaborate features could not simply be for ornamental or aesthetic purposes. Instead, they saw within these details deep symbolism.
Though many approaches exist within rabbinic literature concerning the symbolism of the Mishkan, three major themes emerge, which I believe can teach us a major lesson about how we find G-d in this world.
1. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, the Mishkan symbolized the creation of the universe. As it explains, this conclusion can be drawn from the many literary parallels that exist between the creation story and the instructions concerning the construction of the Mishkan (‘and G-d made’ vrs. ‘and they shall make’; ‘and G-d saw’ vrs. ‘Moshe saw’; ‘and G-d completed’ vrs. ‘And Moshe completed’ etc.). According to this approach the construction of the Mishkan teaches us that we can create mini-universes in this world through emulating the ways of G-d and through building institutions where G-d’s presence can be felt.
2. A different approach is offered by the Midrash Hagadol which explains how the Mishkan symbolizes the Torah. ‘The ten multi-coloured tapestries, in two groups of five, represented the Ten Commandments. The eleven sheets of goat hair, sewn together in groups of five and six, represent eh Five books of Moshe and the Six orders of the Torah etc.’ According to this explanation, the Mishkan is a symbolic representation of the Torah, and just as the Mishkan was glorious, inspiring, and served to bring the Jewish people together, so too should Torah.
3. A third explanation is also found in the Midrash Hagadol which suggests that each element of the Mishkan represents different parts of the human being. ‘the Gold [used in the Mishkan represents] the soul, silver – the body, copper – the voice, blue – the veins etc.’ According to this explanation, the Mishkan symbolizes how we should see the divine essence within each human being.
Expressed differently, the first explanation teaches us that we can find G-d in ‘Creation’; the second teaches us that we can find G-d through ‘Revelation’, and the third teaches us that we can find G-d through the acts of kindness that we perform to other people – or what Rabbi Sacks refers to as ‘Redemption’.
Clearly, each of these are incredibly important themes in Judaism. However, there is one day of the week when we can dwell on all three of these themes, and it this day which directly connects us to the Mishkan.
As we know there is a deep connection between Shabbat and the Mishkan. We are taught that the acts necessary for the construction of the Mishkan (ie. the 39 melachot) are those same acts that cannot be performed on Shabbat. Moreover, a closer look at our Shabbat prayers show how all three of these themes are expressed on Shabbat.
The Tur (Orach Chaim 292) explains that the Amidah that we recite on a Friday night refers to G-d as creator of the universe; the Amidah that we recite on a Shabbat morning refers to the Revelation of the Torah, and the Amidah that we recite on Shabbat afternoon refers to the end of days when the ultimate redemption will come.
The Mishkan was a holy space, while the Shabbat is holy time. What the Tur is teaching us is that through reflecting on our Shabbat prayers and by adhering to the laws of Shabbat we can, in a very deep way, construct a spiritual Mishkan within ourselves.
Each day a Jew should look for opportunities to connect with G-d through Creation, Revelation & Redemption, and it is on Shabbat when a Jew should think deeply about these themes and consider their importance in our lives. By doing so, we will find G-d in this world, in Torah, and in each other.