The Nature of the Cosmos

Why should we care so much about the details of the Tabernacle?

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parashat Vayakhel gives us a detailed description of the construction and furnishings of the Tabernacle; in fact, more than most of us wish to hear. Why include this data? Why does it matter? It matters because in the ancient world, a temple was a model of the cosmos (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954). How the temple is designed and furnished and where objects are positioned express symbolically what its builders believe about the nature of the cosmos.
urj women's commentary

Vayakhel gives us the specifications for these symbols, but it cannot tell us all that they mean. Symbols and metaphors exist precisely because they point toward what cannot be entirely expressed. Moreover, symbols and rituals are not static. They grow and change along with the people who use them, acquiring new layers of meaning along the way.

As an example, let's look at a symbolic object from the Tabernacle that we recognize, the Menorah (lampstand). What does it mean? The Menorah's function is to give light, and light is an important element in our own ritual acts as well. We kindle lights for Shabbat, Havdalah, Yom Tov (holiday), yahrzeit (memorial occasion). The philosopher Ernst Cassirer says that the creation of light, which begins many creation myths, represents the creation of consciousness (Language and Myth, 1946).

Perhaps, when we ritually kindle light, we reenact the dawning of consciousness that enables us both to know God and to be aware of ourselves. Is the Menorah a lamp representing the light-giving or knowledge-giving aspect of the cosmos?

Not Just a Lamp

The Menorah is not just any lamp, however. It is a giant lamp of unusual design, so tall that a priest must ascend a ramp to light it. Twice, in 25:31-40 and then in our parashah (37:17-24), the Menorah is painstakingly described: a golden base, a tall shaft, six golden branches issuing from the sides, each branch bearing cups shaped like almond blossoms, detailed with calyx and petals, plus more blossom-cups on the shaft itself. Atop these branches are seven golden lamps.

Clearly the Menorah embodies some kind of metaphor. But metaphor has rules, just like tennis or Scrabbble. One rule is that there has to be some link between the tenor (the topic under discussion) and the vehicle (the concrete object to which it is being compared).What, then, is tall, has a kaneh (stem), with kanim (branches) extending from it, and p'rachim (flowers) intermixed with bud-like swellings (kaftorim)? The Menorah is a representation of a flowering almond tree!

The almond tree is distinctive not only in that it blossoms early, but also in that it then rapidly buds leaves, develops new branches, and forms its sustaining fruit-all before the flowers' calyx drops off (Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, 1980, p. 130). Its Hebrew name, shaked, means "the early waker," and it may symbolize God's watchfulness or the speed with which God responds (see Jeremiah 1:2).

It is also the legitimating emblem of the Aaronite priesthood. At the end of Korah's rebellion in Numbers 17, Moses deposits the staffs of all the Israelite chieftains in the Tent of Meeting, "and there the staff of Aaron...had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms and borne almonds" (17:23).

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Rachel Adler

Rachel Adler, a feminist theologian, earned a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California jointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches.