“And I will dwell in their midst”

There is a well-known interpretation of the Torah’s instruction to erect the Tabernacle, cited by Alshich: “‘They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst’1 – it does not say ‘in it’ but ‘in their midst.’” With this statement, the matter of the Tabernacle is reduced to its most significant, fundamental point. The Tabernacle is in the midst of the Jewish people – it is “the tent He had set among men”2 – and the people’s presence is essential for its existence. The notion that G‑d will dwell “in their midst” invests the physical Tabernacle with inner meaning. Its sanctity is not due to its structure or to the materials from which it is built, but to the fact that the Jewish people resides around it.

In essence, this is true of every sacred object. Every holy vessel presents an opportunity to establish a holy connection, but this does not happen automatically; the sanctity exists only when the object is used. The sanctity becomes meaningful only in connection with a member of the Jewish people; if that factor is missing, while the object must still be treated with respect, it has no sanctity.

There is a story that illustrates this point: A young rabbi was once imprisoned and tortured by the Russians. When, after a while, he was unexpectedly released, it was discovered that one of the reasons given for his release was that he was insane. The authorities had seen him putting on tefillin, and when they asked him what this was, he answered that it was a communication device through which he spoke with G‑d. After examining the tefillin inside and out and not finding any batteries or antennas, and particularly after seeing him put this device on his head and begin to talk, they came to the conclusion that he was definitely insane.

Obviously, the tefillin themselves are not some kind of magical communication device. But the truth is that, like every sacred instrument, tefillin are instruments for connecting with G‑d, but they only receive their inner essence when combined with one’s performance of the mitzvot associated with them.

What is true of sacred objects is equally true of the Tabernacle. The real meaning of the Tabernacle, its inner essence, is G‑d’s presence in the midst of the Jewish people: “I will dwell in their midst.” Therefore, while it is certainly important to deal with the construction of the physical Tabernacle, it is particularly critical to deal with its inner aspect as well: the human tabernacle.

One whose heart moves him

What is the Tabernacle made of? In the opening of the parshah, G‑d commands the people to donate the materials for the Tabernacle – “Let them bring Me a donation.”3 “Every person whose heart moves him” participates in the construction of the Tabernacle, the building of holiness; everyone gives as much as he wants.

The funds required for the Tabernacle could have been collected in a variety of ways, but G‑d specified that they be donated – “one whose heart moves him.” In parallel situations in the Torah, different methods are prescribed. In the case of the gifts given to the Priests and Levites, for example, the process of giving is defined and obligatory – one must give a certain percentage of one’s produce. Another possible option was graduated taxation: One who has a certain amount of assets pays two percent, one who has more pays three percent, and so on. The collection of funds for the Tabernacle could have been done in any of these ways, yet G‑d required that each person give not according to a specific prescribed measure but according to his generosity.

There is a difference between money that a person donates out of generosity and a set sum of money that he is obligated to pay

Even the money that was collected not by donation but by set measure, like that of the shekel dues, was used in the Tabernacle for specific purposes. None of the service vessels was made from the silver of those coins; rather, this silver was used only to form the bases for the wooden boards of the Tabernacle and the sockets and hooks for the pillars. The service vessels were made of copper and gold donated by the People of Israel, “every person whose heart moves him.”

The distinction between silver and other materials is not essential. At the time of the Temple, for example, this distinction did not exist. The Mishna provides a detailed description of the bringing of the Pesach offering in the Temple, of the rows of golden receptacles and the rows of silver receptacles.4 We see, then, that there is nothing precluding service vessels from being made of silver. Hence, the fact that none of the service vessels in the Tabernacle were made of the shekel silver constitutes an essential statement: There is a difference between money that a person donates out of generosity and a set sum of money that he is obligated to pay.

It appears that the reason for the difference between the shekel silver and the donated money is that there is a limit to how far money that is collected and not donated can reach in the realm of holiness. The problem is not that people were unwilling to make the obligatory payments; it is unlikely that the police had to collect the half-shekel against the people’s will. Nevertheless, a service vessel cannot be made from this silver.

What is more, the use of the Tabernacle donations themselves was not arbitrary. Each donation was used for a specific purpose; each donation had its own destination. What the “one whose heart moves him” donated was assessed and sent to the proper destination, according to his particular case. “From every person whose heart moves him” dictated, for example, that the laver was made from the mirrors of the dedicated women,5 and as a result, the laver itself actually assumed the character of those mirrors. According to our sages, it is no concidence that the sota (suspected adulteress) was made to drink from the water of this very laver: The laver was made by women who were dedicated to holiness, and it is therefore fitting that it was used to test women who deviated from holiness.6

The following humorous story can serve as an analogy for this idea: A rebbe was once asked why he conducts his court with such pomp and splendor, considering that his forebears, who were great men, lived frugally and in poverty. He answered: “There are people who give a pidyon nefesh7 for the sake of Heaven and with great holiness, and their intention is that it should truly serve as redemption for their soul. When I receive such a gift, I use it only for actual mitzvot – Torah study and charity. There are also people whose giving is tinged with other intentions as well, and in that case the money goes toward food, drink, and clothing. However, there are donations that people give as a bribe – if not to bribe me then to bribe G‑d – and such money can be used only for horses. My grandfather’s Hasidim were, for the most part, holy people, and most of the money they gave was for the sake of Heaven. Hence, it went to charity. My Hasidim are mostly of the sort whose money can only be used to buy horses.”

Each item was assigned a particular function, depending on the giver

The same basic idea appears here. Every donation has a certain character that depends on the nature of the giver, and this character determines the donation’s destination. In the plans for the Tabernacle’s construction, a specific order had to be followed: Certain materials were meant for the roof, while others were meant for the floor. Some materials belonged inside the Sanctuary, while others remained outside. Each item was assigned a particular function, depending on the giver.

When it came to the donations for the Tabernacle, no one was approached and asked to give more than he desired. If a person’s heart moved him to donate a piece of wood, then he was a man of a piece of wood, and apparently that is what he can and should give. Hence, each person was asked what he, according to his standards, wanted to give. A person could say, “I want to give gold,” and he can also say, “I want to give a piece of wood.” Another person might have given three simple copper coins, while still another person might have donated processed hides or precious stones.

The whole spectrum builds the Tabernacle

“This is the gift that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper.”8 Since this was a gift, there was no specific gift that could be demanded of everyone equally. Each person had to evaluate himself, and as a result, each person gave a different donation. A glance at the list of donations indicates that the gifts ranged greatly in value. On the one hand, some gave precious stones, some of which – considering their required size – were no doubt priceless. On the other hand, some gave materials that were almost worthless, including dyed wool and goat’s hair, the coarsest material that can still be considered a garment.

This notion – that no one member of the Jewish people could claim a disproportionate role in the construction of the Tabernacle – is precisely what enabled G‑d to truly “dwell in their midst.”

The difference between the gifts lies in the question of how much a person is willing to give, and apparently, the construction of the Tabernacle required the whole range of materials. It required not only the precious stones, but the goat hair as well. It required rare materials, for which one must search deep underground or travel all over the world, but it also required acacia wood, which can be found near one’s home. For the construction of the Tabernacle, there was no one equal standard for measuring the value of a person’s donation. The entire community of Israel participated in building it, and each person contributed his share, from the simplest materials to the most precious. It was impossible to make demands of anyone, because it was impossible to know what each person’s share was in the building. This notion – that no one member of the Jewish people could claim a disproportionate role in the construction of the Tabernacle – is precisely what enabled G‑d to truly “dwell in their midst.”

The Talmud says regarding the seemingly excessive quantity of materials in the Tabernacle that “there should be no poverty in a place of wealth.”9 Why, then, does G‑d need goat’s wool, from which sacks are made? We could instead have used three covers of scarlet wool, and over them another thirty processed hides.

Apparently, the Tabernacle was based precisely on the totality of what the people have inside them, on each person’s generosity and capacity for giving: the small and the great, the rich and the generous. From the combination of all of them together, from top to bottom, a sanctuary is made, and in the entirety of what is built, G‑d’s glory resides.