Torah: Next YouTube hit: Revelation at Sinai, on eternal loop

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Exodus 25:1–27:19

I Kings 5:26–6:13

A recent Time magazine article about YouTube reported that every minute, 60 hours of video are uploaded to the video site. At this rate, more than 10 years of footage are added each day. We are now a fully recorded species.

The Torah originates in a vastly different world, without cameras or video. Perhaps this allows us to explain the last third of Exodus, beginning with this week’s parshah, which focuses almost entirely on the construction of the Tabernacle.

Such intricate description and attention to detail highlight the importance and sacred nature of the Tabernacle, as well as its purpose in preserving a holy moment and allowing it to be shared and experienced by future generations.

At its core, the Tabernacle (Mishkan) aims to record the moment of revelation at Sinai experienced by more than 600,000 recently freed slaves. In this way, we may consider it as the ancient form of YouTube, preserved for eternity on eternal loop, to be experienced anew by each visitor.

The word “mishkan” itself hints at this. The closing verse of last week’s parshah reads, “the presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 24:16). The word for abode comes from the same root as Mishkan. This root may also be conjugated to produce the words for neighbor (shochen), neighborhood (schunah) and God’s essence on Earth (Shechinah). This connection hints at the fact that the Mishkan is built to serve as the meeting place for the Israelites and God, based upon their original covenantal encounter at Sinai.

In his introduction to the parshah, the commentator Ramban argues as much, writing, “The mystery behind the Mishkan is that God’s presence, which abode publicly on Mount Sinai, would discreetly do the same in the Tabernacle. … One who carefully examines the verses describing the giving of the Torah, and understands what we have written concerning them, will understand the mystery of the Tabernacle.”

In “Leviticus as Literature,” anthropologist Mary Douglas writes that the tripartite construction of the Mishkan is meant to reflect the tripartite division of Sinai.

While the Israelites dwell at the foot of Sinai, the elders are allowed to ascend higher, and Moses alone reaches the top to meet with God. Likewise, the Tabernacle is constructed in three sections, with the Israelites on the outside, the priests in the inner court and the high priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

Our sages add that Moses ascended Sinai on the first of Elul, meaning he remained until Yom Kippur —another connection to the ritual within the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle. Finally, the curtain shielding the Holy of Holies resembles the cloud that separates Moses from the elders below. In this way, we may see the Tabernacle as not just a reconstruction but also a re-enactment of Sinai, to be experienced in perpetuity by later Israelite generations.

God chooses to preserve not the site of revelation but the act itself. Following the giving of the Ten Commandments, Mount Sinai ceases to play a sacred function in Jewish life. The Israelites move on, choosing to replicate Sinai within their portable sanctum over making pilgrimage to the historical site.

Parashat Terumah is about preserving history through prescription of ritual rather than commemoration of geography. The mountain itself is not holy — it is only made so by God’s presence. Each time the people stop throughout their journey to the Promised Land, they may experience Sinai anew.

This week’s parshah includes the commandment, “Build for me a Tabernacle and I will dwell among them” (25:8). In the Haftorah, King Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem, following the same structure as the Mishkan. In the Haftorah’s final line, God quotes from Torah to Solomon, saying, “I will dwell among the children of Israel” (1st Kings 6:13).

The connection between Torah and Haftorah teaches that in every generation, we have the opportunity to relive the sacred connection between God and Israel. Seeing a picture or watching a video is one thing, but there is no substitute for personally reliving that moment as if for the very first time.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].