The Value of the Tabernacle
"These are the reckonings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which was reckoned at Moses' bidding. The labor of the Levites was under the authority of Itamar, son of Aaron the Priest. Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, did everything that God commanded Moses." (1)
The Torah portion begins with a brief description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the people who were involved in its construction and service. The Seforno writes that the Torah is teaching us a significant point with this introduction. The Mishkan and its accessories were never destroyed, captured or desecrated. In contrast, both the Temples were subject to desecration and destruction. The Seforno explains that the first two verses in the Portion are giving four reasons behind the elevated nature of the Mishkan. The first is in the words; "'the Tabernacle of Testimony". This, the Seforno explains refers to the two Tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai.(2) These are indicative of the incredible spirituality that dwelt in the Tabernacle. The verse continues; "which was reckoned at Moses' bidding." Since Moses arranged the building of the Mishkan, it benefitted from his personal majesty. The third aspect contributing to the holiness of the Mishkan was that, "the labor of the Levites was under the authority of Itamar". Itamar was also a man of great stature. And finally, the second verse informs us that Betzalel, also a great man, with great lineage, built the Mishkan.
The Seforno then contrasts this with the people involved in the building of the Temples. The first Temple was arranged by the righteous King Solomon, however, the workers were non-Jews from Tsur. Since the Temple was not built by righteous people, it was subject to corrosion and therefore needed to be maintained, unlike the Tabernacle. Moreover, because of its lower level of holiness it did ultimately fall into the hands of our enemies and was destroyed. The second Temple was of an even lower level of holiness; the Tablets were not there, and it was arranged by Cyrus, the Persian King. Accordingly, it too fell foul of our enemies and was destroyed.
Three verses later, the Torah tells us the total value of all the jewelry that was given for the building of the Tabernacle. The Seforno on this verse, continuing in his theme from the earlier verses, notes that the total material value of the Tabernacle was far less than that of both Temples, both of which were incredibly beautiful and expensive buildings. And yet, unlike the Temples, the humble Tabernacle continually had the Divine Presence within it. The Seforno concludes that this teaches us that the holiness of a building is not defined by its material value and beauty, rather by the spiritual level of the people who were involved it its construction.(3) In a similar vein, the explanation of the Seforno teaches us that the Torah outlook attributes true value towards physical objects or buildings in a very different way to that of the secular outlook. In the secular world, the external beauty or material value of the item define its 'value'. In contrast, the Torah pays little heed to the external qualities rather the internal spirituality that was invested into the item determines its true value. Thus, the Tabernacle may have been far less physically impressive than the two Temples but its true value was far greater because of the intentions of the people who made it.
This concept is demonstrated by an interesting incident with regard to the Tabernacle that is described in Parshas Terumah and Vayakhel. God instructs Moses to tell the people to bring the raw materials necessary in order to build the Mishkan. "This is the portion that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; and turquoise, purple and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed ram skins; tachash skins, acacia wood; oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and the aromatic incense; shoham stones and stones for the settings, for the Ephod and Breastplate." (4) The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh points out that the order of the materials mentioned is difficult to understand; the shoham stones and the 'stones of the settings' are the most valuable of all the items in the list, therefore logically they should have been mentioned first.
He offers an answer based on the Gemara that informs us how the people attained the shoham stones. The Gemara says that a great miracle occurred and shoham stones came down along with the manna.(6) The Princes then donated these precious stones to the Mishkan. One may think that the supernatural manner in which the stones came down would only add to their inherent material value. However, the Ohr HaChaim writes the exact opposite; since the stones came without any effort or financial loss, they are placed at the end of the list of items donated to the Mishkan.(6) When the people gave all the other items, they were parting with their property and willingly undergoing financial loss for the sake of doing God's will. This places those items, including such mundane material as goat hair, on a higher level than the precious shoham stones who came through a miracle. This starkly demonstrates the Torah's value system with regard to the physical world. External factors are completely subjugated to the internal - the intentions that went into the item determine its true value.
This concept has applications in Jewish law. The authorities discuss the status of an esrog that has been bruised by over-use. The Chatam Sofer rules that if the bruises came about because many people fulfilled the mitzvah of shaking the four species with this esrog, then it is kosher. He writes further that the fact that the bruises came about through mitzvot actually enhances its status, and constitutes a kind of hiddur (beautification) in and of itself.(7) This Chatam Sofer teaches us a very telling lesson. When a person would see a beautiful, clean esrog that had never been used, and compares it to a bruised esrog that had been shaken by hundreds of people, he would consider the clean esrog to be of greater value. However, the Torah focuses far more on the internal value behind the esrog, than on its external beauty. In a similar vein, a man's hat once became very dirty on Shabbat. He asked the Chazon Ish if he could clean it on Shabbat. The Chazon Ish answered that it was forbidden, but the man argued that it is not Kavod Shabbat (the honor of Shabbat) to go around with a dirty hat. The Chazon Ish answered that since the hat is left dirty in honor of the sanctity of Shabbat, in this case, keeping it dirty constitutes honoring the Shabbat itself. Again, one may think that a dirty hat cheapens Shabbat due to its unkempt appearance, however, in truth the intentions that lay behind the dirt can turn this into a way of greatly honoring Shabbos!
We have seen how the Torah's criterion for defining the true 'value' of the physical world is very different from that of the Western world. The effort, kavannah (intentions) and spiritual input into that item are the true determinants of its objective value, as opposed to its superficial appearance or monetary value. There is a very natural tendency for a person to focus on the externalities of the physical world, including the size of a house, the appearance of a car, and so on. The sources above teach us that the Torah focuses on the internal.
1. Shemot, 38:21-22.
2. See Rashi, Shemot, 38:21 who explains the term, 'The Tabernacle of Testimony' differently from the Seforno.
3. Seforno, Shemot, 88:21,24.
4. Terumah, 25:3-7. Vayakhel, 35:5-9.
5. Yoma, 75a.
6. Ohr HaChaim, Terumah, 25:7, dh: Od nireh.
7. Chiddushei Chasam Sofer, Sukkah, 36a.