Editor's note: During Passover, we recall the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and their journey through the desert. Last month, the East Valley JCC had a rare opportunity to view a life-size replica of the Tabernacle of Moses, which was the portable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites during the 40 years they wandered in the desert.
This replica was brought to Arizona by the Gary Smith, president of the Queen Creek West Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Smith estimates that about 1,000 people visited the exhibit.
Although the Latter-Day Saints have a different perspective on the symbolism of the Tabernacle, they invited Rabbi Michael Beyo, EVJCC CEO, to speak at an interfaith symposium. Beyo also led a tour that offered the Jewish perspective to a group of about 30 participants. Below, Rabbi Beyo shares some insight about the Tabernacle of Moses.
Let’s go back in time for a moment. Let’s try to think what it might have felt to the Children of Israel thousands of years ago, after centuries of brutal, tyrannical slavery, to be miraculously liberated and taken out of bondage. We would all say that is a miracle! In fact, we celebrate that miracle by retelling the story every year with the Pesach seder.
But I would like to posit that this is not the real miracle. The real miracle is that during the hundreds of years that the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, they were embedded in idol worship just like the Egyptians, and once they are freed, they are exposed for the first time to the concept of monotheism.
What a cultural and psychological shock. In fact, we know that the entire generation that came out of Egypt was never fully able to grasp the one God. That is the same generation that did not merit to enter the land of Israel because they built the Golden Calf and chose an idol over God. God was so upset that he wished to destroy this nation. Moses pleaded with God to forgive the Children of Israel and God accepted his plea. At this point, we might have thought that God would not have chosen them to build His house.
This miracle of repentance, which in Hebrew we call teshuva, is the second chance that God gives us: Once you repent, you are eligible even to build the House of God.
In the natural world, there is no repentance, there is no forgiveness. The miracle is when we sin against God and we are able to repent, God forgives us. The miracle is when we hurt another person and we ask forgiveness and restore our relationships to better than before. That starts with the Tabernacle when God allowed us to build it even though we were not perfect.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites were commanded by God — through Moses — to build a Tabernacle, a Mishkan, so they could bring sacrifices to atone for their sins and bring thanks to God. The description of the Tabernacle is explained in great detail in the Book of Exodus and the exhibit brought to Arizona by the Queen Creek West Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aimed to follow these instructions to scale.
The Tabernacle was surrounded by a rectangular fence, creating an outer courtyard area. All Israelites were allowed in the courtyard, which is where they brought their sacrifices, prayed and sang. The courtyard also included an altar used for burnt offerings (sacrifices) and a basin.
A whole burnt offering was offered by priests on the altar each morning and evening on behalf of all Israelites, and people brought animals to sacrifice to show gratitude and devotion, to repent.
Within the courtyard was an outer chamber where only the Levites and Kohanim were allowed to go. The Levites, to explain it in today’s terms, handled the maintenance of the Tabernacle. This “Holy Place” included a seven-branched menorah, a golden table with showbread (12 ritual loaves) and an inner altar.
These 12 loaves of bread represented the 12 Tribes of Israel and at the end of the week, these loaves were eaten by the priests. Today, we place two loaves of challah on our Shabbat table to represent these loaves. An inner chamber housed the Holy of Holies, which contained the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Holy of Holies represented the presence of God and only the High Priest was allowed to enter this area; he did so only on Yom Kippur.
The significance of the Mishkan was a place where God’s presence dwelled among the Israelites. Today, without a Mishkan or a Temple, our homes and our communities have become the holy place where we can find God’s presence. When we perform mitzvot and acts of love and kindness, we are creating a holy place for God to reside within us, as it is written: “And I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I shall be a God to them” (Exodus 29:45). JN