In this week’s portion, the Jewish people are commanded to build the Mishkan (tabernacle): “They shall make a sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell amongst them” (Ex. 25:8).
Then instructions are given on building different vessels which would be inside the Mishkan, starting with the ark (which would hold in it the Tablets which Moshe received at Sinai): “They shall make an ark of shittim wood” (Ex. 25:10). After the ark, commands are given to build the Cherubs, the Table and the Menorah. Only after this are the detailed instructions given for how to build the Mishkan itself, its covering, its walls etc.
If the Mishkan was meant to be built first, why were the specifications given for the ark first? And when Moshe gave over the instructions to Betzalel the son of Uri, who had been appointed to build the Mishkan, he told him to first build the ark, then build the Mishkan. Betzalel correctly deduced that first the house is built in which the “furniture” will be placed (Tractate Berachos 55a). Why would Moshe deviate from the order given to him by G-d?
In Judaism, spiritual acts and instructions often have as much significance as physical ones. Even though the physical construction of the Tabernacle was to take place before the construction of the ark, because the ark housed the Torah it was the focal point of the Tabernacle. So the first mention was of the Tabernacle, as that was to be the first tangible thing to be built. The specifications were, however, given first for the ark, because the ark is the purpose of the tabernacle, not vice versa.
The Mishkan was built as an equal to the world (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar), a world of compressed spirituality, a place where G-d’s presence could dwell in this world. The Torah was the impetus and the blueprint for the world: “G-d looked in the Torah and created the world” (Zohar Parshas Terumah). So just as in the Mishkan, on a spiritual level, the ark preceded the Mishkan, as the raison d'ętre of the Mishkan was to be the ark, so too the Torah preceded the world, as the raison d'ętre of the world is the Torah.
What is the meaning of "the Torah predates the world?" The concepts listed in the Torah are not subject to the constraints of time. True, there are certain commandments at the present time which are not in practice, such as the laws of the Sacrificial offerings, and the laws relating to a king. This is not because these laws are no longer relevant, but rather, we lack the necessary means to fulfill them.
The idea that the Torah is older than the world itself forces us to confront reality in a completely different fashion. Instead of trying to see and understand the Torah through the glasses of contemporary mores, we must view contemporary reality through the spectrum of the Torah.
One of the biggest challenges to being a Jew in our society is the problem that very often our views will conflict with the New York Times, G-d forbid.
The perspective of the Torah is the perspective of G-d, a perspective not clouded by changing views. The Torah view was to forbid cruelty to animals, while at the same time giving prescribed instructions which would allow us to eat them. This was the view 3000 years ago, when the concept of animal “rights” didn’t exist, and this is the view now, when animal rights activists afford the same rights to animals as they would to humans.
We must remember to view the Torah from this perspective, and when we do so, we will see the wonder of the Torah, that it is truly timeless.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.