Understanding the tabernacle todayVayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38
In this Shabbat’s Torah portion, which is a combined one, we once again get a detailed description of the building of the tabernacle.
As a contemporary Jew, I used to find no meaning for myself in this section of the Torah. In my studies, however, I found a commentary from the late 17th, early 18th centuries that I have come to cherish called Me’Am Loez, begun by Rabbi Ya’akov Culi and completed by Rabbi Yitzchok Magriso. In the section for this Shabbat, Magriso shares two interpretations of this parsha that help us see the tabernacle with unique perspectives.
The first perspective compares the tabernacle to everything that God made during the six days of creation. The curtains of goats’ wool parallel the heaven and the earth. The washstand and its base represent the seas and rivers. The altar and its sacrifices remind us of the animals that God created. The incense Magriso connects to plant life. The menora represents the sun and moon with the seven lamps paralleling the seven heavenly bodies that were known at that time: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun.
The second perspective comes from a letter written by Moses Maimonides to his son, where Maimonides’ knowledge as a physician sees the tabernacle paralleling the human body. For Maimonides, the holy ark, the innermost part, alludes to the human heart, which is the innermost part of the body. The ark was the main part of the tabernacle because it contained the tablets of the covenant. So is the human heart the main part of the body. It is the source of life, knowledge and understanding.
The wings of the cherubim allude to the lungs. The table in the tabernacle alludes to the human stomach. Just as food and drink are placed on the table, so the stomach is filled with food and drink that a person consumes.
The menora in the tabernacle alludes to the human mind. Just as the menora gives forth light, so the intellect enlightens the entire body.
Three stems went out from the menora on each side. These allude to the three limbs that extend from each side of the human body, the eye, the ear and the hand.
The incense altar alludes to the sense of smell.
The sacrificial altar alludes to the intestines, which digest the food that enters the body.
The veil covering the tabernacle alludes to the diaphragm, which is like a barrier between the parts of the body.
The washstand alludes to the moisture and other liquids in the body.
The goats’ wool hangings allude to the skin that covers the human body.
The beams of the tabernacle allude to the ribs.
Maimonides then instructs his son that the parallel between the tabernacle and the human body is to teach us that if a person behaves as a good Jew the divine presence will rest upon the human being just as it was on the tabernacle.
The beauty of the Torah is that its meaning is often deeper than we realize.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)