Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayikra
To dedicate this lesson

Why Couldn't Moshe Enter the Mishkan??

The Zohar brilliantly asks: "Why was Moshe able to stand before the Divine Presence on Mt. Sinai, but not down on earth?"

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Rabbi Re'em Hacohen

Adar II 9 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

The Book of Leviticus is not only the book of sacrificial offerings. It also marks one of the main milestones along the long road from our enslavement in Egypt to independence in the Promised Land – namely, the completion of the Tabernacle in which offerings will be brought and G-d's presence will finally dwell in Israel.

As Vayikra opens, the big day has arrived, that to which they all looked forward and for which they worked so hard. The Israelites contributed their energies and money; Betzalel and Oholiav gave of their creativity and other skills; but most of all, Moshe Rabbeinu gave. He began the entire process when he cried out to Pharaoh, "Let my people go!' He raised his staff and the Red Sea split; he brought down the Torah – the ray of light in the darkness they had undergone for centuries prior; and he constantly called upon the nation to serve G-d. And now, finally, he gets to experience the fulfillment of his dream to see the Divine Presence dwell in the world.

A year after the Exodus, with the completion of the preparations, Moshe began building the Tabernacle. He lifted up the boards, draped the curtains and skins, and brought in the utensils. The cloud then covered the Tabernacle and, as we read at the end of Exodus, "the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle." But to Moshe's great frustration, he remains outside: "Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting." The prophet and leader remains outside and does not get to commune with G-d! And at this terrible moment, the curtain drops, and the Book of Exodus ends abruptly.

The Torah scroll leaves four empty lines after each of the Five Books of Moses – and the four lines between Sh'mot and Vayikra look particularly empty. Their silence screams out that which is not explained: "Why could Moshe not enter the Mishkan??"

Actually, the question might be the opposite: How is it even conceivable that a mortal man could meet and stand before the pure and infinite G-d? On the other hand, there actually was such a meeting once before – on Mt. Sinai. And regarding this, the Zohar brilliantly asks: "Why was Moshe able to stand before the Divine Presence on Mt. Sinai, but not down on earth?"

However, if we look carefully at Moshe's first ascent to the mountain, we will see that there, too, Moshe doesn't ascend immediately. First come shofar blasts and thunder and lightning, then Moshe brings the nation towards the mountain as Hashem "descends" a bit on the mountain – and then, "G-d called Moshe to the mountain top, and Moshe ascended." That is, Moshe went up only after G-d called him.

Here, too, in the first verse of Vayikra (lit., "He called"), G-d calls to Moshe – and thus begins the encounter between man and his G-d via the Tabernacle service. Here too, just like at Mt. Sinai, man can come close to G-d only after he is called.

Why is this? What does it mean to "be called?"

The Prophet Yeshayahu saw, in a vision, the heavenly angels
 "calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy." The
founder of Chabad, Rav Shneiur Zalman of Liadi, notes that the Targum Onkelos translates these words in an interesting manner, as we say in
 U'va LeTzion: "They receive from one another."

That is, calling each other is equal to accepting from one another. The idea is this: Hashem and man; one angel and another; two people – there is a gap between the elements of each pair. For everyone is different than everyone else. People mean different things when they speak, they think differently, and they see things differently. Everyone sees things from his own vantage point and angle. When I meet someone else, and am open to him, I am actually giving him space in my consciousness, I am contracting myself and allowing his viewpoint to enter my thoughts. This can only happen if I open myself to him, if I "call out" to him and invite him to enter, despite the great differences between us. My calling him grants him importance and gives him space in my world. I am telling him that I value him and his viewpoint.

The Book of Vayikra is the answer to the problem of the great, inconceivable gap between man and G-d. We read here about the Tabernacle and its service that enables the Divine Presence to dwell in the world. From man's viewpoint, the gap cannot be bridged: Moshe does not go up to the mountain, nor does he enter the Tabernacle – until he is called by G-d. G-d thus grants him importance; He is willing to hear him, to "contract" Himself, and respond to sacrifices and prayers. This call continues to echo even today, and in order that we ourselves can enter the holiness, we must pay heed, listen to, and identify G-d's call to us – and then respond to it.

[Translator's note: Based on this first verse of Vayikra in which G-d calls to Moshe before talking to him, Jewish Law stipulates that one must not speak to someone else without first calling to him. For instance, before asking someone the time, it is proper to say, "Excuse me," wait for him to acknowledge, and then ask the time.]

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