The Mishkan and the Magpies

The Mishkan and the Magpies: Terumah: Exodus 25.1 – 27:19


Howard Adelman

For a section of the Torah that is almost all about following directions, directions for constructing the Ark for the covenant, the table, the menorah, the portable tabernacle (the mishkan), the altar, the enclosure for the tabernacle itself, after reading this section of the Torah why am I left so puzzled? It is not as if I am unfamiliar with translating design ideas, even ones not represented with detailed architectural drawings, into actual physical objects – at least overseeing that function since I have virtually no abilities as a craftsman. I may be a philosopher, but ever since my days as a student acquiring and renovating houses as residences for students for our student co-op, I have literally overseen the renovations of dozens of buildings. I love doing it. People hate renovating their own homes. For me it has been a delight. So why do I get exasperated by a section of Torah that is, on the surface at least, about architecture and design?

It is not as if this text is strange. It is so familiar. Have you ever been in a synagogue where you have not seen inscribed somewhere the words engraved in stone or on a plaque or somewhere:

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

Rashi genuinely tried to offer an explanation. The texts as inscribed are out of chronological order. The story of the Israelites making and worshipping a golden calf, an idol to worship, may follow this text in the Torah, but the events depicted preceded the building of the mishkan. God could not continue to dwell on a mountain top like Zeus or other gods. He had to descend to live among his people so the people could bask in His presence and He could ensure they did not slip into idolatry.

Thus, even though Rashi was an advocate of taking the plain meaning of the text as primary, he was no literalist. He knew that humans at the very least, not God, put the Torah together. Building a sanctuary for the sake of the Israelites so God could live amongst them did not stack up as an adequate motive. For then they make a golden calf just when God is living among them. Talk about chutzpah! Getting them to make a mishkan with the gold and silver and fine fabrics from among all the other loot the Israelites brought out of Egypt after the Israelites built the golden calf makes more sense since it takes these riches out of their possession so they cannot build another idol. And that is something God would do for He was a jealous God.

Very inventive, but not persuasive as far as I am concerned! The evidence is circumstantial rather than providing concrete literal clues to establish that the two stories were put together out of order. What would be the motive for the editor doing such a thing? Besides, the existing order makes a lot of sense on psychological grounds. When God dwelt on a mountain top, the people were full of awe and wonder. But when He deigned to live among the people, that sense of tremendous respect withered away and the Israelites could turn away from Him and adopt idol worship.

If jealousy, early warning and prevention are not adequate as motives, what could qualify? The text seems very clear – “that I may dwell amongst you.” That just begs another question, however. Why? Why does God want to dwell among His people? To be able to watch over the Israelites to observe any transgressions? At the opposite end, to share in the vibes of a growing community with a common purpose, doubly important for a disembodied being who has to live vicariously through the crazy lives of human beings? Or perhaps, somewhat related to the last, because God is lonely way up high upon the mountain top and He wants to live amongst His people, not above them. These are just some of the possibilities.

Let me suggest why it is difficult to discern the real motive or motives. One explanation the text offers is, “That they may know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt,” (29:46) suggesting that the point of living among them is that the Israelites not forget, and, indeed, come to know the living God who dwells in their midst. But the text continues, “that I might dwell in their midst.” (my italics) This possibly inverts the meaning to mean that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to allow God to live in their midst. Is the purpose for the Israelites to know their God or for God to have a home among his people? Rashi emphasized the latter – the Israelites were brought forth out of Egypt so God could live among them (and could not in Egypt). Ramban leans towards the former interpretation that the Israelites will know God when He lives amongst them.

The two meanings need not, of course, be mutually exclusive. God may deeply need to leave His remote and lonely refuge and “come in from the cold.” The mishkan is the place where He can dwell both among them but separate from them. But the people of Israel also need God to be in their midst both physically in terms of a dwelling place and spiritually. God also has a deep need for physicality, for corporeality, a need which can never be satisfied if you are a Jew, for God manifesting Himself as a physical being would stand against the injunction not to make physical objects idols of worship. God needs a physical presence. The Israelites need God as a spiritual presence in a physical abode. But God inherently cannot be physical. So a mishkan is built to overcome the paradox, a place where God can dwell and be present, but not personally physically present. The motives of God and his people are complementary and fulfilled by the same construction. The two needs, both of God’s and of the Israelites, can be mutually satisfied.

But then why all the luxury? Why gold this and silver that and cloth made of goat’s hair? Look at the list: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other gemstones. Can you imagine a horde of refugees in a camp in a barren wilderness being invited to give gifts of gold and precious stones to build a home for God? For they were all refugees, including God. When the people of Israel were living in Egypt, God too was in exile as well since their destinies were mutually bound together. The exodus from Egypt is a redemption for both. But why the need for a sanctuary to serve both humans and God? And why such a luxurious building when it is presumably only a temporary structure, a portable small home in today’s parlance? But a rich one! How is luxury related to sanctifying both ourselves and God?

I could pull a Bernie Saunders. It was a way of reducing inequality. Take from the rich and build infrastructure for the whole community. Except there was no taking.  Verse 2 at the beginning of the parsha reads: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The only gifts acceptable were gifts brought voluntarily. The giver had to have his heart moved to offer a donation. But that is no obstacle to the explanation. The method of obtaining redistribution need not be compulsory. Charitable giving is an effective mode of redistribution.

Why remove the wealth from the rich who were lucky enough to leave Egypt either with much of their own wealth and/or wealth stolen from the Egyptians? Because the Israelites were all in this together. It was a collective action problem. Too much inequality undercuts the morale needed for dealing with issues as a collectivity. Second, the mishkan could serve as a central bank, much as Fort Knox once did. It could guarantee the tokens of exchange when the Israelites engaged in trade with the other tribes and nations they encountered.

But the best explanation I ever heard was from an old British folktale “A Tiding of Magpies,” birds with a well-renowned and deserved reputation for collecting bright ornaments, but also one of the most intelligent animals in the world, the only non-mammal species able to recognize itself in a mirror test. It also helps to know another folktale, this time a Chinese one called The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, a love story between Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Niulang, the cowherd. Their love was forbidden. To prevent them getting back together, they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River (the Milky Way). But once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a tiding (flock) of magpies formed a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day. The 7th lunar month in the Torah is Tishrei (Ethanim) according to Kings 8:2 and the Israelite rather than the Judaic calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of Tishrei. The seventh day of Tishrei is the end of the first week after Rosh Hashanah. So once a year on the 7th of Tishrei counting from Rosh Hashanah, Zhinü and Niulang are reunited with the help of magpies.

Read only vertically at first. The first eight lines of the tiding of this old British folktale reads as follows in the first column:

A Tiding of Magpies

One for sorrow                        the sorrow of leaving Egypt and the trek through the desert

Two for Joy                             in the promised land that beckons

Three for a girl                        all refugees sacrifice themselves for the sake of

Four for a boy                                     future generations

Five for silver                          the means to achieve

Six for gold                             two, three and four above

Seven is for the secret

That never can be told.


With the help of Alex Zisman



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