4 Adar 2 5763
8 March 2003
A Sense of Closure

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle.

With these words, the long story of the building of the mishkan " and the book of Shemot as a whole " reaches closure. But there is a much larger narrative arch completed by these words. In a sense, the entire prehistory of mankind, beginning with the first human beings, Adam and Eve, here reaches a point of rest.

As modern scholars have noted one of the key literary devices of the Torah is the chiasmus " a form that has the structure A-B-C-C-B-A. One of the most striking examples is the key verse of the covenant with Noah:

A. Shofekh, "he who sheds"

                                B. dam, "the blood"

                                                C. ha-adam, "of man"

                                                C. ba-adam, "by man"

                                B. damo, "shall his blood"

                A. yishafekh, "be shed." (Bereishith 9:6) 1

A chiasmus is a literary unit (verse, paragraph, or entire section) in which the second half is the mirror- or reverse-image of the first. Many sections of the Torah have this shape.

Most scholars focus on the chiasmus itself as a technique of form or style. This is a mistake. In fact, the chiasmus is a supreme example of form following function: style that communicates substance. At its simplest level, a chiasmus is the literary expression of the most basic principle of biblical (retributive) justice: the rule of measure for measure (middah keneged middah), or "as you act, so shall others act to you". [Hillel] Those who harm others will themselves be harmed. Those who do good will have good done to them. (Hence the corollary: behave toward others as you would wish them to behave to you). What happens to us (C-B-A) is a mirror image of the way we ourselves act (A-B-C).

This is more than a rule of ethics. It is a key to the biblical interpretation of history. The starting point of the human situation is harmony. Then comes sin, which breaks the intrinsic harmony of the universe. The result, measure for measure, is exile (a sin is an act in the wrong place; the result is exile, a person or people in the wrong place). There then follows an act of contrition, purging or atonement, which leads to return and the restoration of original harmony.

What does this have to do with the mishkan?

One detail in the construction of the Mishkan holds the key:

Make two gold cherubs, hammering them out from the two ends of the cover. One cherub shall be on one end, and one on the other . . . The cherubs shall spread their wings upward so that their wings shield the cover. The cherubs shall face one another, looking towards the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark, and put in the ark the Testimony that I will give you.
2 (25: 18-21)

There is only one place we have encountered cherubs before: at the entrance to the Garden of Eden:

G-d banished [man] from the Garden of Eden, to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove away the man, and stationed cherubs at the east of Eden, and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
3 (Gen. 3: 23-24)

The connection between the cherubs in the sanctuary and those in the garden is strengthened when we recall that, in the sanctuary, they stood above the ark, which contained the tablets of the Torah, and that the Torah itself is called "a tree of life to all who seize hold of it." ("G-d hid the tree that granted eternal life to all who ate from it and in its place He gave us His torah. This is the tree of life, as it says, qqShe is a tree of life for those who grasp herqq"
(Midrash haGadol to Bereishit 3:24). If Eden was paradise lost, then the Tabernacle was paradise regained.

This becomes clearer still once we realize that the six days of creation were not merely a sequence of events, an evolution. They were, in fact, two cycles of three, the first of which created domains, which were then filled by the second:

Domains created

Domains filled

Day 1:


Day 4:

Lights ruling day / night

Day 2:

Waters above sky/ waters below

Day 5:

Sea creatures in waters below sky/birds that fly above

Day 3:

Sea/dry land

Day 6:

Land creatures: animals and mankind


This separation into three domains is precisely mirrored in the Tabernacle with its three key spaces: the outer court, the holy, and the holy of holies. The order of the sanctuary recapitulates the order of the cosmos as it was before human beings sinned. Every sin is an averah, a "transgression", a forbidden crossing of boundaries, the creation of disorder. The sanctuary is where sin is atoned " and order is restored. Just as in creation, once the domains had been created they were then filled with life, so in the sanctuary, once the domains have been separated from one another by the various frames and their coverings, so they are filled by the divine presence ("the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle").

We can now understand the depth-meaning (omek peshuto shel mikra)
5 represented by the following midrash:

When G-d created the universe, He desired to have a dwelling place in the lower world as He had in the upper world. He called Adam and gave him one command, which he transgressed. G-d then removed His presence to the [first] heaven. Cain killed Abel, and G-d removed His presence from the first to the second heaven. Next came the generation of Enosh, during which people began serving idols. G-d removed His presence to the third heaven. Then came the generation of the flood, and G-d removed His presence to the fourth heaven. After that came the generation of the dispersion (the builders of Babel) and God removed His presence to the fifth heaven. Then there were the people of Sodom, because of whose sins G-d removed His presence to the sixth heaven. After them came the Philistines, who angered G-d and caused Him to move His presence to the seventh heaven.

G-d then said: I created seven heavens, and until now the wicked have prevailed. What did He do? He gathered all the generations of the wicked together and in their place set Abraham. Abrahamqqs good deeds brought the Divine presence down from the seventh heaven to the sixth. Isaacqqs willingness to be sacrificed brought it down to the fifth. Jacob brought it down to the fourth, Levi to the third, Kehat to the second, and Amram to the first. Then came Moses and brought the Divine presence down to earth. When? When the Tabernacle was erected.
6 (Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) Naso 24)

The whole of human history from creation to the exodus thus describes a vast chiasmus, during which the Divine presence gradually becomes more and more distant from mankind. Then comes Abraham and the successive generations of his children, each of whom bring heaven one stage closer to earth. Closure is reached in the Tabernacle, the human counterpart of the creation of the universe (see Covenant and Conversation, Terumah). Just as creation, in the first chapter of the Torah, is a form of order (domains distinguished and then filled), so the Tabernacle is a symbol of order in the midst of the wilderness " the desert here standing as the counterpart of the tohu vavohu, "formless waste", with which creation began.

Bereishit-Shemot thus form a single vast narrative arch whose message is this: Just as human beings can cause the exile of the Divine presence, so they can bring about its return. To do so, though, they must themselves return, from self-will to Divine will; from attempting to impose a human order on the world to the recognition of the integrity of the Divine order of the world. The Tabernacle, accompanying the Israelites on their journeys, was the perennial symbol of Eden regained, with the ark (containing the new "tree of life") at its centre.

The Divine challenge to mankind is this: I have created order. Do not destroy it by creating disorder. In all the vast universe there is only one creature on whom I have set My image, and that is you. What will you make? Harmony or chaos? A garden or a wilderness? So that you never forget that choice I am making you My partners in creating the Tabernacle. It will be small and fragile, yet its significance is vast. Here, infinitesimal humanity and Infinite G-d will meet. It will always remind you, as you must always remind humanity, that we are the circumference of a circle at whose centre is G-d.