A Garden Built by Humans
This week’s reading contains God’s instructions for the building of the mishkan, the traveling tabernacle (i.e., a big tent) in which the Israelites will offer sacrifices to God. Hardly a detail is left unmentioned. We learn about the different metals and precious stones to be used in its construction; the colored yarns and the different sorts of animal hides needed; things to made of wood, including the Ark of the Covenant; the rings, hooks, loops, poles, planks—and this is just the beginning. The details go on for all of this week’s reading and all of next week’s, plus the first part of the reading for the week after that.
An obvious question arises: Why bother? At the very beginning of this week’s reading, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to “make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst.” Why couldn’t the Torah have just added, “And so they did” and skip the details?
In fact, considered from the standpoint of where we are in the Torah’s chronology, there was no apparent necessity for a mishkan. At this stage of things (that is, before the ill-starred mission of the spies in Numbers 13), the Israelites were presumably going to be in the wilderness for only a short while before their entry into Canaan—a few more weeks! During that time, God could certainly have continued to dwell on Mount Sinai and then, once the people were settled in their homeland, moved to Mount Zion without any need of a mishkan along the way. Or else He could have followed the wandering Israelites from within the “pillar of cloud” or some other feature of the natural (or supernatural) world, waiting until they arrived in Canaan before establishing the regular sacrifices.
In considering this matter, the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud suggested that the building of the mishkan at this point in history was no a stopgap measure designed for a week or two, but the culmination of a great circle that started way back in the Garden of Eden. Eden was, strictly speaking, a kind of mikdash (sanctuary), that is, a place where God Himself is said to be present. (The Torah asserts that Adam and Eve heard “the sound of the Lord God walking about in the midst of the Garden” in Genesis 3:8, so He must have been right there.)
But after the pair ate from the forbidden tree, God put some distance between Himself and the human beings, hovering at some distance above the garden floor. Then came Cain, Adam and Eve’s evil son; after he murdered his brother Abel, God further distanced himself from humanity and went up still higher. The generations that followed were hardly better, until finally, after ten generations, God had to bring the Great Flood in the time of Noah in order to cleanse the earth of its sinful inhabitants. By then, He was far, far away, watching from a great distance above the earth.
Just at that point, however, a new sort of human being appeared: Abraham, “the one who loved God” (Isa. 41:8) and who sought to obey Him in all things. Abraham was followed by his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob, both likewise devoted to God. Jacob’s son Joseph was a model of virtue, “Joseph the righteous.” As these figures appeared one after another, according to a famous midrash, God began to descend little by little; finally, the greatest of prophets appeared, Moses, with whom God spoke “mouth to mouth” (Numbers 12:8). By now God was just above the earth’s surface again. It was then that He said, “Let them make Me a mishkan so that I may dwell in their midst.”
The rabbis associated this great return to earth with a particular verse in the Song of Songs: “I have come into My garden, My sister, My bride.” The sister/bride, of course, represents the people of Israel, and the “garden” in question is no other than the mishkan. But why call it a garden? As was already mentioned, the mishkan was a tent, fashioned by human hands. In view of the foregoing, however, it might also be thought of as the new Garden of Eden. It was a place where God might again be present right in the midst of humanity, just as He had done in the time of Adam and Eve.
In this sense, the building of the mishkan was indeed a kind of return to what had once been—but different, since this garden was made by humans. In fact, one might pronounce the words of that verse, “I have come into My garden, My sister, My bride,” slightly differently, not aḥoti kallah (“My sister, My bride”) but aḥoti killah (“which My sister—the people of Israel—has completed”). If so, this reading would stress (albeit with some grammatical leniency) that the second garden, unlike the first, was made possible through human agency, fashioned by human hands and offered to God.