Shortly after the Chassidic master Rabbi Mendel of Horodok (1730?-1788) arrived in the Holy Land, it happened that a man climbed the Mount of Olives and sounded a shofar (ram's horn). A rumor quickly spread that the shofar's call heralded the arrival of Moshiach. When word of this reached Rabbi Mendel, he threw the windows wide open and sniffed the air. He then sadly closed the windows and remarked, "I don't smell Moshiach."1

In retelling this story, Chassidim have often asked: why did Rabbi Mendel need to open the window to sniff the air outside to know if Moshiach had arrived? Why couldn't he smell the air in his own room? Rabbi Mendel—they would explain—was sniffing the air to determine if the hallmark of the messianic era, the revealed manifestation of the Divine, was present. He therefore sniffed the outside air, for within his room the Divine was already present!

Order Reversed

This story sheds light on an exchange, recorded in the Talmud, between Moses and Betzalel, Moses' chief architect for the building of the Tabernacle. Moses summoned Betzalel and relayed G‑d's instructions for building the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary built by the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert). First he laid out the measurements of the sacred vessels that would inhabit the Tabernacle, and then the dimensions of the Tabernacle itself.

Betzalel, the prototype architect, objected to the order. "As a rule," he argued, "a person first builds a residence and then makes its furniture." Moses conceded the point and exclaimed, "Indeed, you stood in G‑d's shadow and understood his intention." (The name Betzalel is etymologically composed of two Hebrew words, b'tzel E-l, which mean "in the shadow of G‑d.")2

G‑d and People

What is the underlying principle of the different perspectives on the Tabernacle expressed by Moses and Betzalel?

The purpose of the tabernacle, and the temple that followed it, was to establish a domain for G‑d within the physical space of our world.3

When G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai, his presence was overwhelming and the people could not withstand the sheer intensity of the experience. They were physically thrown back from the mountain and G‑d dispatched angels to lead them back. Their souls expired from the spiritual intensity and G‑d nursed them back to life.4

After the Sinai experience, it was clear that the people could not be exposed to a direct revelation of G‑d's presence. G‑d instructed them to build a special chamber instead, where his unrestricted presence would be manifest. Only the worthy, such as the high priest, would access this sacred chamber; but its aura would affect those outside.

Gradual Transformation

The environment outside the chamber was yet incapable of supporting a direct revelation of divinity. However, with effort and commitment, revelation could, over time, be made possible. According to our prophets, this will be accomplished in the messianic era when there will be a direct revelation of G‑dliness throughout the world.5

The work that makes this possible is diligent study of Torah and the practice of its commandments. Every time Torah is studied, a mini revelation, similar to that of mount Sinai, is effected. Every object utilized in the performance of a mitzvah is enveloped by a surge of divinity, similar to that of the Tabernacle.6

This regular diet of divinity gradually purifies our worldly environment and lifts the universal veil. We are closing in on the utopia of direct revelation that will be manifest in the messianic era.

When G‑d first instructed that the tabernacle be constructed, he envisioned this utopia. He anticipated a day when the divinity within the sacred chamber would expand to envelop the entire nation and when the human eye would see G‑d and not be overwhelmed by the experience.7

Vision and Reality

Moses, a G‑dly man, envisioned this utopia as well. Gazing out upon the world, he ignored its imperfections and saw only its divine potential. His mandate was to expose the "outside" world gradually to the divine presence on the "inside," and he wished to accelerate the process. By building the Holy Ark before the walls that would enclose it, he hoped to offer to the "outside" a glimpse of its own capacity and thereby activate its potential.

Betzalel, the architect, was a realist with the patience of a man accustomed to long-term goals. The environment on the outside was not prepared to host the Divine presence just yet. He recognized that it was not appropriate to expose the Holy Ark to a yet unconditioned "outside." It would require centuries of gentle coaxing, committed coaching and tireless training.

Moses was the visionary; Betzalel the realist. Moses' vision inspired confidence in the project; Betzalel's realism made it possible. We pray for the day that Moses' vision becomes Betzalel's reality.8