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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shmini

The Mishkan: Dedication, Anticipation, and Crisis

Parshat Shemini

Wedding Day. A Serious Lapse. Private Mourning vs. Public Joy
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1. Wedding Day
2. A Serious Lapse
3. Private Mourning vs. Public Joy

Wedding Day
"Go out and see, daughters of Zion, the crown that King Shlomo's mother crowned him with on his wedding day and the day of his heart's rejoicing." (Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs 3:11). The Talmud in Tractate Ta'anit explains: "'On his wedding day' - this is a reference to the giving of the Torah; 'the day of his heart's rejoicing' - this is a reference to the building of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple.) The eighth day, the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was characterized by a unique sense of joy - the happiness that one feels on one's wedding day. For the Jewish people, this was a day on which they solidified their marital bond with their Father in Heaven. The Talmud in Tractate Megillah declares that on that day "the joy felt by the Holy One, Blessed be He was similar to the joy He felt when He created heaven and earth. The proof: In the verses in Shemini, the Torah states: 'And it was on the eighth day...'; this is similar to the structure of the verse that appears in reference to the creation of the world: 'And it was evening and it was morning....'"

The bond was first forged with the giving of the Torah, when Israel stood at Mt. Sinai and pledged, "We will perform [the mitzvot] and we will listen [to their reasons.]" It was a day on which Israel subjugated its personal will to the will of God.

The Mishkan was built in order to develop, to strengthen this union. In his commentary to Parshat Terumah, Ramban elaborates on this theme - namely, that the Mishkan was strikingly similar to Mt. Sinai in its role; just as the glory of God openly "came to rest" on Mt. Sinai, it also "came to rest" in the Mishkan. Regarding the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Torah states, "And God's honor dwelt on Mt. Sinai." Similarly, in reference to the Tabernacle the Torah tells us: "And God's honor filled up the Mishkan." Just as at Mt. Sinai, "You heard God's words from the midst of the fire" - in the Tabernacle, Moshe's words were heard from between the two gold cherubim. It was in this fashion that the Holy One, blessed be He continued to guide the Israelites, to teach them Torah and mitzvot - by speaking to them through the Tent of the Meeting. The lines of communication opened at Mt. Sinai - remained open through the Mishkan.

A Serious Lapse
The continuity we have set forth above was not smooth and uninterrupted, however. A traumatic event took place after the giving of the Torah and before the construction of the Mishkan: the sin of the Golden Calf. Even Aharon HaCohen (the High Priest) was somewhat involved in this debacle. For this reason, great anticipation preceded the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. On this day, it would become clear as to whether or not Israel had undergone the proper degree of purification from the sin of the Golden Calf: Had God forgiven them? Would He permit His presence to dwell in the Mishkan? Aharon himself was filled with self-doubt as to whether he was the appropriate person to serve God in the Mishkan. According to Ramban: "Since Aharon was the holy one of God, and his only major sin to date was his involvement in the building of the Golden Calf, he was continually troubled by this sin, in accordance with the verse, 'And my sin is before me always.'"

This same theme surfaces in a rabbinic statement in Torat Cohanim, the halachic midrash that elucidates the Book of Vayikra. There, our sages say that the altar appeared to Aharon in the form of a bull [reminding him of the calf]; he was therefore hesitant to approach it to bring an offering. Moshe Rabeinu had to therefore urge him by saying, "Go ahead, approach the altar and offer up the Guilt and Burnt offerings..." According to Ramban, these sacrifices represented special additional offerings aimed at atoning for the sin of the Golden Calf...

The great anticipation felt by Israel at the dedication of the Mishkan was also evident in Moshe's statement to them: "Because on this day, God will appear to you"; "This is matter which God has instructed; you must do it, and then God's glory will be revealed to you." At the end of the chapter, once God had emitted His fire on the altar, we read: "The entire nation saw this...and they prostrated themselves..."

Private Mourning vs. Public Joy
Yet after these exhilarating moments, on this very day, Israel experiences a great low, as well: Two of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, die in the course of bringing their sacrifices to God.
The deep mourning felt by Aharon and his remaining sons was potentially a very serious damper on the festive atmosphere of the day. Aharon was central to the celebration of the Mishkan's dedication. A great effort was therefore made not to permit the private mourning to negatively impact on the national joy. As a one-time command, Aharon and his remaining sons were instructed not to let their hair grow or rend their garments, despite the fact that this is customary upon the death of a loved one. Furthermore, despite the fact that prior to the burial of a close relative, one may not consume sacrificial meat, Aharon and his sons were instructed by God to consume the meal offerings and Peace offering sacrificed on that day.

A similar principle is encoded into halacha as well: A Jewish festival nullifies the seven-day mourning period for someone who buries his relative shortly before the festival. If the death occurs during the festival itself, the mourning period is postponed until after the holiday. The reason: Jewish festivals are a time of joy for the entirety of the people, and the great value of a national celebration - the joy surrounding a moment of national fulfillment and wholeness - is considered by the Torah as more weighty than the mourning of the individual.

May it be God's will that we are spared from all evil decrees, that no misfortune befalls us from now on - so that we will be able to fully rejoice during our festivals.
Rabbi Hillel Geffen
Teaches in the Beit El Yeshiva, coordinator of the Bekiut program at the Yeshiva.
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