The Architecture of Holiness
From this week’s Torah portion to the end of the Book of Exodus, the holy book describes, in painstaking detail and great length, the construction of the Mishkan — the first collective house of worship for the Jewish people.
Precise instructions are given for each item — the Tabernacle itself, the frames and drapes, and the various objects it contained — including their dimensions. For example, we read:
Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker. All the curtains are to be the same size — twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide … Make curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle — eleven altogether. All eleven curtains are to be the same size — thirty cubits long and four cubits wide … Make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. Each frame is to be ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide … (Ex. 26:1-16)
And so on. But why do we need to know how big the Tabernacle was? It did not function in perpetuity. Its primary use was during the wilderness years. Eventually it was replaced by the Temple, an altogether larger and more magnificent structure. What, then, is the eternal significance of the dimensions of this modest, portable house of worship?
To put the question more sharply still: is not the very idea of a specific size for the home of the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, liable to mislead? A transcendent God cannot be contained in space. Solomon said so:
But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built. (1 Kings 8:27)
Isaiah said the same in the name of God Himself:
Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where is the house you will build for Me? Where will My resting place be?”Isaiah 66:1
So no physical space, however large, is big enough. On the other hand, no space is too small. So says the midrash:
When God said to Moses, ‘Make Me a tabernacle,’ Moses said in amazement, ‘The glory of the Holy One blessed be He fills heaven and earth, and yet He commands, Make me a tabernacle?’ … God replied, ‘Not as you think do I think. Twenty boards on the north, twenty on the south and eight in the west are sufficient. Indeed, I will descend and confine My presence even within one square cubit.’ (Shemot Rabbah 34:1)
So what difference could it make whether the Tabernacle was large or small? Either way, it was a symbol of the Divine presence that is everywhere, wherever human beings open their heart to God. Its dimensions should not matter.
I came across an answer in an unexpected and indirect way some years ago. I had gone to Cambridge University to take part in a conversation on religion and science. When the session was over, a member of the audience came over to me, a quiet, unassuming man, and said, “I have written a book I think you might find interesting. I’ll send it to you.” I did not know at the time who he was.
A week later, the book arrived. It was called Just Six Numbers, and subtitled “The deep forces that shape the universe.” With a shock I discovered that the author was Sir Martin, now Baron, Rees — the eventual President of the Royal Society, the oldest and most famous scientific body in the world. He is also the Master of Trinity College Cambridge, and in 2011, he won the Templeton Prize. I had been talking to Britain’s most distinguished scientist.
His book was enthralling. It explained that the universe is shaped by six mathematical constants which, had they varied by a millionth or trillionth degree, would have resulted in no universe — or at least no life. Had the force of gravity been slightly different, for example, the universe would either have expanded or imploded in such a way as to preclude the formation of stars or planets. Had nuclear efficiency been slightly lower, the cosmos would consist only of hydrogen; no life would have emerged.
Torah commentators, especially the late Nechama Leibowitz, have drawn attention to the way the terminology of the construction of the Tabernacle is the same as the language used to describe God’s creation of the universe. The Tabernacle was, in other words, a micro-cosmos, a symbolic reminder of the world God made. The fact that the Divine presence rested within it was not meant to suggest that God is there. It was meant to signal, powerfully and palpably, that God exists throughout the cosmos.
The dimensions of the universe are precise and mathematically exact. Only now are scientists beginning to realize how precise, and even this knowledge will seem rudimentary to future generations. We are on the threshold of a quantum leap in our understanding of the full depth of the words: “How many are your works, Lord; in wisdom You made them all.” (Ps. 104:24). The word “wisdom” here — as in the many times it occurs in the account of the making of the tabernacle — means, “precise, exact craftsmanship” (see Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:54).
The Torah puts the same emphasis on precise dimensions in only one other place: Noah’s ark: “So make yourself an ark of cypress wood. Make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around.” (Gen. 6:14-16)
Like the Tabernacle, Noah’s ark symbolized the world in its Divinely-constructed order, the order humans had ruined by their violence and corruption. God was about to destroy that world, leaving only Noah, the ark and what it contained, as the basis for a new order.
Precision matters. Order matters. The misplacement of even a few of the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome can lead to devastating genetic conditions. The famous “butterfly effect” — that the beating of a butterfly’s wing somewhere may cause a tsunami elsewhere, thousands of miles away — tells us that small actions can have large consequences. That is the message that the Tabernacle was intended to convey.
God creates order in the natural universe. We are charged with creating order in the human universe. That means painstaking care in what we say, what we do and what we must restrain ourselves from doing. Being good, specifically being holy, is not a matter of acting as the spirit moves us. It is a matter of aligning ourselves to the Will that made the world.