Do We Need a Tabernacle? (Ex. 27:20-30:10)
Both last week's portion and this week's portion are dedicated to the minute details of Tabernacle construction. Last week's, Terumah, described the gathering of necessary materials--gold, silver, crimson, seal skins, etc.--and the building plans for the Tabernacle and its accessories. This week's, Tetzaveh, depicts the elaborate priestly garments--breastplate, tunic, trousers, turban, etc.--and the installation of Aaron and his four sons as priests. Two weeks from now, the story of the erection of the Tabernacle will continue with the portion of Vayakehel and Pikudei, which in turn lead into the book of Leviticus, itself heavily focused on Tabernacle/Temple code.
Next week, though, we take a sharp detour from priestly ritual with Parshat Ki Tisah, which tells the famous story of the sin of the Golden Calf. The order and juxtaposition of these parshiyot (portions) is peculiar. Why interrupt the unified coherent Tabernacle narrative to tell a completely different story of sin, punishment, and redemption?
Ramban--Nachmonides, a 12th-century commentator--provides a simple answer. The order of the parshiyot is chronological. First the Israelites were given the commandment to build the Tabernacle. As they were in the process of building, they were waylaid by the Golden Calf. After that situation was resolved, they continued with the Tabernacle project. The events are recorded exactly in the order in which they occurred.
Rashi--Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, of the late 11th century--takes a very different approach. Citing the famous Talmudic adage "there is no early and late in the Torah," Rashi claims that the order of parshiyot does not at all reflect the order of events. The sin of the Golden Calf occurred before the Israelites were ever told about the Tabernacle. Indeed, Rashi claims that the Tabernacle was instituted as a means of repentance for the Golden Calf.
This debate between Rashi and Ramban extends beyond the chronology of events. Their argument becomes a dispute about the fundamental purpose and plan of the Tabernacle. For Rashi, the Tabernacle is an afterthought. It is established as a consequence of the Israelites' sin. The people demonstrate their need for a physical object to which they can direct their devotions to an incorporeal God. While the Golden Calf was an explicit violation of the Ten Commandments, God recognizes the religious need underpinning it and provides the people with a tabernacle towards which they can redirect their religious energies. The Tabernacle is not an ideal, but rather an accommodation to human frailty.
Ramban disagrees. He claims that the Tabernacle was begun before anyone ever imagined the Golden Calf. The Tabernacle was a direct consequence of the Revelation at Sinai, where the Israelites became a holy nation (Exodus 19:5). As Ramban explains, "As holy people, it was fitting to have a Temple in their midst so that God's divine presence could dwell among them." For Ramban, the Tabernacle is the pinnacle of the relationship between God and the Israelites. The Tabernacle is a continuation of the Sinai experience, and the means by which the people can bring revelation into their daily lives.
The implications of this debate continue into our own times. As Jews living in a post-Temple period, how do we relate to the loss of the Beit Ha mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem that in earlier eras stood at the center of Jewish life? Is the Temple such a fundamental part of Judaism that in its absence our religious rites lack a level of sanctity and revelation? Or was the Tabernacle/Temple a response to the specific religious psyche of the ancients and perhaps ultimately unnecessary for modern day religious experience?
If in our prayers we pray for the restoration of the Temple, are we asking for an actual physical structure, or are we beseeching God for an atmosphere of direct revelation?
It is possible that our religious needs are distinct form those of our ancestors. Their relationship to the Tabernacle in the past does not necessarily answer questions of our relationship to the Temple in today's world. Still, the Tabernacle created the paradigm of a structure dedicated to worshipping to God, and as such remains crucial to an appreciation of the interplay of Jewish worship and sanctified space.