Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thoughts on the Mishkan

If asked to determine whether a house was being lived in or not, I would investigate two things: whether the house's lights were on, and whether there was food in the fridge. The presence of both would be strong evidence that somebody lived there, even if they were not physically present at the moment.

Imagine then that you came to the Temple in Jerusalem, walked in the front door, and found the lights on and food in a refrigerator. By the same logic, you would conclude that someone was living there, even if the building was physically empty at the time. And taking the limitations of ancient technology into account, it does seem that the Temple's "furniture" includes a close approximation to both lights and a refrigerator .

I used to wonder what was the purpose of the "shulchan lechem hapanim", or table with showbread, in the Temple. My conclusion now is that it symbolized the ancient version of a refrigerator. The showbread, which simply sat on the table for a week before being replaced, had no practical purpose. Rather, its purpose was symbolic: to indicate that the Temple was occupied by somebody, who possessed a stash of food for their nourishment and convenience.

Unlike the showbread, the menorah has a clear practical use: the mishkan had no windows, and while the Temple had windows, they were useless at night. But I think the menorah's role is at least as much symbolic as practical, and moreover, that the symbolic significances of the menorah and showbread are linked. The menorah and showbread are often mentioned together, for example in Vayikra 24 where no other objects in the Temple are discussed. And the seven branches of the menorah, along with the seven days between replacements of showbread (Vayikra 24:8), seem to indicate a common purpose. If the showbread is a symbol that somebody calls the Temple home, the menorah is a symbol that somebody is constantly using the Temple.

The question then is: who is that somebody? There are two options: either the priests (representing Israel and/or humanity), or else God. Good arguments can be made in favor of both possibilities.

On one hand, the entire Temple is called the "house of Hashem", and when the cloud representing God enters the Temple, it apparently takes up the entire building (see Shemot 40:35, Melachim Alef 8:10-11). Thus God apparently dwells in the entire Temple building.

On the other hand, there is a huge difference between the "kodesh hakodashim", which only the high priest on Yom Kippur may enter on pain of death, and the "kodesh" or outer hall which is traversed by priests on a daily basis. If approaching God is so terrible, does this not mean that entering the outer hall does not really mean approaching God?

The menorah and showbread are located in the outer hall, and from their laws we could try to deduce who is supposed to symbolically "use" them. However, this evidence too is ambiguous. The showbread procedure resembles that of a sacrifice, and sacrifices are symbolically "eaten" by God (see Bamidbar 28:2). And in Shmuel Alef 3:3, the menorah is called "Hashem's light" and the literary implication is that once it disappears, so will God. Yet the showbread is physically eaten, and the menorah physically used for illumination, by the priests.

Since so much evidence points in both directions, it is hard to prove that the Temple's outer chamber belongs to either man or God. Perhaps the best resolution is to say that it belongs to both man and God. The "kodesh hakodashim" belongs solely to God (thus humans are virtually never allowed to enter it). The courtyard outside the Temple belongs solely to humans (since God dwells in the Temple). In between those two realms, the outer chamber of the Temple apparently is shared by man and God.

Because of this dual usage, the Temple's outer chamber is apparently where humans meet God. When Moshe went to hear a Divine message after the construction of the mishkan, he would go to the outer chamber and listen to a voice coming from the inner chamber (Bamidbar 7:89; Rashi). And Shmuel's first prophecy (Shmuel Alef 3:3-15) apparently took place in the outer chamber of the mishkan, when it was in Shiloh. Moshe and Shmuel are perhaps the two greatest prophets ever, and each of them received some of their most significant prophecies in this part of the mishkan.

Throughout Tanach, circumstances would dictate that prophets receive their message in all sorts of places and situations. But it seems that ideally, prophecy was supposed to occur in the outer chamber of the mishkan/Temple. As indicated by the symbolism of the menorah and showbread, there God and man dwelt together, and there communication between them was most natural.

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