A Prayer of Moshe
As the finishing touches are put on the Mishkan, Moshe sees that all God's instructions have been carried out precisely, and he utters a blessing:
And Moshe looked upon all the work, and, behold, they had done it as God had commanded, so had they done it; and Moshe blessed them. (Shmot 39:43)
It seems only natural that Moshe would utter a blessing or a prayer at this juncture; the purpose of the Mishkan was to create a house of prayer, a place of worship.(1) What prayer did Moshe utter? Rashi opines that this prayer was preserved in our liturgy, and is familiar to us even today:
And Moshe blessed them: he said to them, "May it be [God's] will that the Shechina rest in the work of your hands, and may the pleasantness of the Almighty our God be upon us..." (Tehilim 90) This is one of the eleven Psalms in the Prayers of Moshe. (Rashi, Shmot 39:43)
Rashi refers, in almost telegraphic brevity, to one of the eleven Psalms that begin with the introduction, "A prayer of Moshe"(or, perhaps more accurately rendered, 'Moshe's prayer'). This particular psalm is, in fact, an eloquent prayer that might be uttered by any artisan upon completing any task. It is a song of joy that is immediately understood and appreciated: when man labors and succeeds in creating something worthwhile, the humble, spiritual response is a prayer that God indeed bless the work of his hands and the fruits of his labor.(2) However, Rashi sees much more in this Psalm than a general prayer for success: Rashi, who assumes the reader is familiar with scripture, cites only the first half of the first verse, expecting his readers to replace "etc." with the very pertinent words that constitute the remainder of the verse:
A Prayer of Moshe the man of the Almighty. God, you have been our dwelling place in all generations... May the pleasantness of the Almighty our God be upon us; and establish the work of our hands upon us; O prosper it, the work of our hands. (Psalm 90)
This Psalm speaks of the purpose and function of the just-completed Mishkan as a physical expression of God's Presence among the People of Israel, and of our own place in this world as an expression of God's Will. It is no wonder that Rashi associated this Psalm with the unnamed prayer Moshe uttered upon seeing the fully-built Mishkan, an expression of the peoples' exact and scrupulous observance of God's instructions.
Human endeavors, especially spiritual ones, are difficult for the human eye to evaluate. The Seforno(3) addresses this problem with a rather straightforward observation: the amount of gold used in the Mishkan paled in comparison with the First Temple, which itself paled in comparison to the Second Temple, after it was renovated by Herod. The casual observer might conclude that the building in which there was a greater investment, the building that was imbued with the greatest grandeur and splendor, was the most holy. In fact, Seforno says, this was not the case; the Mishkan was more holy than the first Beit Hamikdash, which was, in turn, holier than the Second Temple. The quantity of gold with which each was adorned was inversely proportionate to the holiness with which it was infused. The Seforno goes on to explain that the key factor was not the gold - nor any other expression of grandeur, but the people who stood behind the actual process of erecting the building. The Mishkan was built by a man named Bezalel, a man whose entire being was permeated with the spirit of God; hence the edifice which he erected was infused with the spirit of God. The first Beit HaMikdash was built by foreign workers(4) commissioned for the project.(5)
The Netziv addresses this issue as well, in his comments on the verse regarding the clothes of the kohanim. In this verse, God transmits instructions, through Moshe, to the people:
And you shall speak to all who are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aharon's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister to me as a kohen. (Shmot 28:3)
The peculiarity of this verse does not come across in translation: The Netziv notes that although the instructions here are all addressed in the plural - to any number of "wise-hearted" artisans who will take part in the creation of these holy garments, one particular word appears in the singular. Only one person is "filled" with wisdom. The Netziv's solution to this grammatical anomaly forces a new reading of the verse: This one person who is filled with the spirit of wisdom is Aharon himself; therefore, the Netziv suggests, the verse should be rendered: 'And you shall speak to all who are wise hearted; Tell them: Aharon, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, will know if they have had proper intention. They may make Aharon's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister to me as a kohen.(6)
The Netziv's understanding of the verse is similar to the conclusion reached by the Seforno regarding the Beit HaMikdash: when Aharon dons his priestly robes, he will know the intentions of the artisans who created it. Were they were imbued with thoughts of holiness, or were they motivated by pride, by self-centered thoughts of fame and personal glory? Aharon would sense these thoughts and motivations the moment he donned the garments of his holy service.
The Netziv takes this idea even further, applying it to the creation of all holy objects: the intention from the outset, and all the details of the process, can be felt in the finished product. The Netziv cites a rabbinic teaching that reinforces and brings this idea to life:(7) The Talmudic discussion is actually a description the work of one of the pillars of Jewish education, the great Rabbi Hiyya:
Whenever Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya were in a dispute, Rabbi Hanina said to Rabbi Hiyya: 'Would you dispute with me? If, Heaven forfend! the Torah were forgotten in Israel, I would restore it by my argumentative powers.' To which Rabbi Hiyya rejoined: 'Would you dispute with me, who achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax cords], trapped deer, whose flesh I gave to orphans, and prepared scrolls [from their skins], upon which I wrote the Five Books [of Torah]. Then I went to a town [where there were no teachers] and taught the Five Books to five children, and the six orders [of the Mishnah] to six children. And I bade them: "Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah;" and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel.' This is what Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi meant when he] said, 'How great are the works of Hiyya!' (Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 85b)
While Rabbi Hiyya's foresight and ingenuity are most impressive, there would have been a more efficient way for him to accomplish his educational goal; rather than beginning with the planting of seeds to make netting and trapping deer, he could have easily bought the parchment he needed from a local purveyor of scribal supplies. This enterprise was complicated far beyond what seems to have been necessary; while it is true that as a byproduct of his labor orphans were fed, the educational goal of this project could have been accomplished far more efficiently. The Maharsha explains that Rabbi Hiyya's project design included even the very first stage: Rabbi Hiyya wanted every element that contributed to the final product to be permeated with holiness. He felt the students would be able to feel the difference, that they would be spiritually impacted by the foundation. The source, the motivation, matters. It makes a difference if holiness is only the byproduct, or if the entire process is infused with holiness. Who knew the intentions of the hunter who caught the skins from which the parchment in the local store was made? How could he be sure that the raw materials for his holy mission would be free of impure thoughts? Rabbi Hiyya knew that for his students to be imbued with holiness, holiness would have to be part of every step of the process.(8)
Similarly, Moshe did not simply say a prayer when the project was completed, in an attempt to imbue the finished product with holiness. The artisans were inspired and focused every step of the way, to ensure that the maximum amount of holiness would become part and parcel of the very essence of the building and all its utensils.
When the project was completed, Moshe emulated God; just as God blessed the world when Creation was complete,(9) so Moshe blessed the Mishkan. The Talmud reports that the blessing of the Mishkan did not end with Moshe; from that time on, through the years in the desert and later, in the stationary Mishkan and even later in the Beit haMikdash, each time a group of kohanim would end their service, they would bless the new group of kohanim about to be entrusted with the holy work:
May He who dwells in this house plant among you brotherhood, love, peace and friendship. (Talmud Yerushalmi Brachot, chapter 1 law 5)
This blessing encapsulates the very essence of the Mishkan/Mikdash. God's dwelling on this earth brings harmony and peace to all those who take part in its spirituality. This can only be so if the entire edifice, from its inception through its realization as a physical construct, is infused with purity, and devoid of selfish motivations.
As the book of Shmot comes to a close, as the Mishkan stands, ready to serve as a dwelling for God among us and as a place where every Jew can reconnect with the spirituality and love experienced at Sinai, Moshe blesses those who took part in the project, and, indirectly, all of us: May all of our actions and intentions be imbued with holiness. May He who dwelt in that holy space, and has been our refuge throughout the generations, sow the seeds of brotherhood, love, peace and friendship among us; these will surely blossom into our final redemption and the rebuilding of God's earthly abode.
Hazak Hazak v'Nithazek.
1. See comments of the Seforno, Shmot 29:45; also see the Seforno's comments on Shmot 25:9.
2. The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 9:4, teaches that God Himself uttered a similar "prayer" upon completion of the world: R. Hama b. R. Hanina and R. Jonathan explained it is follows. R. Hama b. R. Hanina said: Compare this to a king who built a palace. He saw it and it pleased him. 'O palace, O palace,' exclaimed he, ' may you find favor in my eyes at all times just as you have found favor in my eyes at this moment!' Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, regarding His world: 'O My world, O My world! May you find favor in My eyes at all times just as you have found favor before Me at this moment.'
3. Seforno Shmot 38:24.
4. See I Melachim, 5:15-25: "And Hiram king of Tyre sent his servants to Shlomo; for he had heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father; for Hiram had always loved David. And Shlomo sent to Hiram, saying, 'You know that David my father could not build a house to the name of the Almighty his God on account of the wars which were around him on every side, until the Almighty put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Almighty my God has given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil hindrance. And, behold, I intend to build a house to the name of the Almighty my God, as the Almighty spoke to David my father, saying, "Your son, whom I will set upon your throne in your place, he shall build a house to My Name." And therefore command that they cut me cedar trees from Lebanon; and my servants shall be with your servants; and to you will I pay wages to your servants according to what you shall set; for you know that there is not among us any who can skillfully cut timber like the Sidonians.' And it came to pass, when Hiram heard the words of Shlomo, that he rejoiced greatly and said, 'Blessed be God this day, who has given to David a wise son over this great people'. And Hiram sent to Shlomo, saying, 'I have considered the things which you sent to me for; and I will do all you wish concerning the timber of cedar, and concerning the timber of cypress. My servants shall bring them down from Lebanon to the sea; and I will convey them by sea in floats to the place that you shall tell me, and will have them discharged there, and you shall receive them; and you shall meet my wishes by providing food for my household.' And Hiram gave Shlomo cedar trees and cypress trees according to all his wishes. And Shlomo gave Hiram twenty thousand measures of wheat for food for his household, and twenty measures of pure oil; thus gave Shlomo to Hiram year by year." (I Melachim 5:15-25)
5. See Seforno, Shmot 38:21.
6. Hamek Davar, Shmot 28:3.
7. In the verse cited above the Netziv mentions that he has mentioned this in his commentary to "Shmot 19:2 and some other places" (see Devarim 17:18). In the commentary to Shmot, The Netziv brings the proof from Rabbi Hiyya.
8. This explanation is offered by the Maharsha in his commentary to the Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 85b. The Netziv (without citing the Maharsha as his source) applies the principle to a number of biblical verses.
9. See above note 3 Midrash Berishit Rabbah 9:4, and see Sifra Shmini Parsha aleph. Ramban Bamidbar 6:24, Rabbeni Bachya Shmot 39:43 and Kli Yakar Shmot 39:43.