Naso, the second portion in the Book of Numbers, incorporates abundant and diverse subjects. It completes the census with a counting of Levitical families and the enumeration of their responsibilities to the Tabernacle. These chapters also contain: instructions for isolating disease and other sources of impurity from the community, the ritual of the suspected adulteress and the procedure for undertaking a Nazirite vow. The parashah's concluding section begins with the threefold Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing, and ends with a list of the offerings brought by the tribal heads for the ceremony of dedication of the Tabernacle.
Our selection comes from the fifth aliyah:
On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils. (7:1)
The Rabbis derived the symbolic significance of the Tabernacle from this verse. Today we will look at two eloquent midrashim, one of which sees the Tabernacle as a mirror of the celestial realm, the other of which sees the Tabernacle as a mirror of the terrestrial sphere.
A midrash found in Sh'mot Rabbah 35:6 imagines the conversation that ensued when God asked Moses to construct the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, telling Moses to "follow the patterns for them that are being shown you." (Exodus 25:40) Incredulous, Moses remarks, "Am I God, that I can make such as these?" God responds by reassuring Moses that he needs only to construct an earthly replica of God's own heavenly "pattern" for the Tabernacle. "You [make it] with your materials, and I will with My glory." God continues, "For if you will make down below what is above, then I will leave My heavenly assembly and cause my Presence to dwell among you, down below." The Rabbis then found all manner of images connecting God's heavenly realm to the features of the Tabernacle: "Just as above, the seraphim stand, so too, down below, acacia poles stand. Just as above, there are stars, so too down below . . . [for] the golden clasps of the Tabernacle looked like stars twinkling in the skies."The earthly Tabernacle, the place where the people communed with God, where they met in sacrifice and song, has become a mirror of God's realm.
A different midrash on the verse we are exploring likens the Tabernacle to earth rather than heaven. "The Tabernacle was equal to the world, for the world is called a 'tent' even as the Tabernacle is called a 'tent'." (B'midbar Rabbah 12:13) As God "stretched out the heavens like a curtain" (Psalm 104:2), so too did woven curtains stretch out over the top of the Tabernacle. The basins of the seas are likened to the washbasin in the Tabernacle. The stars in the firmament become the lamp stand of gold; the birds of the fifth day of creation match the winged cherubim molded into the ark; and the creation of humankind to inhabit the earth on the sixth day finds its parallel in the investiture of the priests who will inhabit the Tabernacle and minister to it.
The Tabernacle resonates with God's heavenly abode as well as our earthly abode. What a fitting double message for a synagogue! At its best, the synagogue mirrors both the celestial and the terrestrial realms. First, the heavenly: A vital congregational community continually strives for Godliness, primarily through study and prayer. In the last decade or so, the Reform Movement's learning initiatives like Torat Chayim and Ten Minutes of Torah, and organizational change projects such as HUC-JIR's Experiment in Congregational Education, Synagogue 3000, STAR and Synaplex have recast Reform Judaism as both a transmitter of traditional wisdom and an interpreter of sacred literature for a new era. Thousands of learners are filling our congregations and cyberspace not only to provide their children with a Jewish education, but also to nourish their own Jewish identities with adult and family education. Jewish learning is a lot like building a Tabernacle; it requires a concerted spiritual investment, but the endeavor draws our consciousness toward heaven.
Mishkan T'filah, our Movement's new siddur due for publication later this summer, is bold in its structure, broad in its accommodation of diverse worship styles and eloquent in its expression. Mishkan T'filah will help to revitalize worship where it has grown stagnant and will also provide our diverse membership with a common prayer language. With the right combination of liturgy, leadership, vocal music and instrumentation, a congregation can facilitate congregational singing and heartfelt prayer, drawing us closer to the heavenly realm.
A synagogue has not achieved its purpose, however, if it remains directed only toward the heavenly. A commitment to simple acts of loving kindness, and to social justice, has been the hallmark and glory of the Reform Movement and the cord that links us to the prophets of old. Consider the outpouring of goods, money, and human labor from our congregations in the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina last year; or the impact of Reform Jewish congregations and our own Religious Action Center in decrying genocide in Darfur and, by demanding U.S. governmental action, in catalyzing some recent albeit modest progress toward peace. Synagogues must engage the concerns of the world. Only then will our Tabernacles reflect both the splendor of the heavens and the harmony of humanity fulfilling its God-given potential.
1. Think of your synagogue, or the synagogue in which you were raised. How does (did) your congregation emulate the values that you consider "heavenly?" How does (did) it address concerns that you would classify as "earthly?" What could it do (have done) to improve in either of these directions?
2. Consider once more God's reassuring words to Moses: "You [make it] with your materials, and I will with My glory." (Sh'mot Rabbah 35:6) Can you think of a time when a task or a goal seemed out of reach until you were given permission to achieve it on your own terms, to "do it your way," with only the material or human resources that you had on hand? Describe how you achieved your goal, even if with different materials or a different strategy. (Some of my best recipes began as improvisations due to lack of some ingredient!)
3. We've discussed much here about sacred values but little about sacred space. How does the architecture of your congregation reflect the values it espouses and holds most dear? How could the architecture be improved in order to mirror the best of the congregation's ideals?
For further learning
Apropos the topic of the Tabernacle's heavenward focus, the subject of the forthcoming Summer 2006 issue of our Movement's quarterly magazine Reform Judaism (which should arrive at our congregational members' homes in a matter of days)is "Drawing God Near." You can preview its contents at reformjudaismmag.org/.
Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842