Mishkan and Midrash

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

A midrash, in the Midrash Tanchuma to Parshat Pekudei records R. Yaakov b. R. Asi’s opinion that the construction of the Mishkan parallels the creation of the world. To summarize his theory:

  1. The ירעות of the Mishkan parallel the Heavens, which are referred to as יריעות in Tehilim
  2. The פרוכת, which divides sections of the Mishkan, is parallel to the רקיע which divides the upper and lower waters
  3. The כיור parallels the ocean
  4. The מנורה parallels the luminaries
  5. The bird sacrifices performed in the משכן parallel the birds
  6. The כהן גדול parallels the human being
  7. There are three parallels to the seventh day:
    1. Moshe’s completion of the Mishkan parallels G-d’s completion of the universe. Both completions use the verb ויכל/ו
    2. Moshe’s ברכה upon completion parallels G-d’s ברכה upon completion
    3. Moshe’s sanctification of the Mishkan parallels G-d’s sanctification

These parallels all portray the construction of the Mishkan as a microcosm of the creation of the universe. If this symbolism is taken to its logical end, upon completion the Mishkan becomes a portable universe in miniature, with humans as its makers instead of G-d.

Interestingly, all of the parallels in this midrash are taken from the first Perek in Bereshit, and the first creation story. However, other passages throughout Tanach create parallels between the Mishkan and the story of Gan Eden in the second creation story, which is covered in the second and third Perakim of Bereshit. These include:

  1. Adam is placed in the garden with the responsibility “to cultivate (לעבדה) and keep (לשמרה)” the garden. The work of the priests in the Mishkan is described using the terms עבודה and שמירה in various places throughout Tanach (Bamidbar 3:7-8, 8: 25-26).
  2. Yechezkel 28:13 says that in Eden there were the carnelian, topaz, and the emerald, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the carbuncle, and the smaragd, and gold. All of these stones are listed as included in the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol in Shemot 28:17-20, 39:10-13.
  3. The Mishkan was full of depictions of the Keruvim. The image of Keruvim appears on the Aron Kodesh, as well as the פרוכת, which separated the Kodesh Kedoshim from the rest of the Mishkan, and the יריעות, which served as a roof for the Mishkan. Keruvim also make an appearance at the end of the second creation story when G-d places them at the entrance of Gan Eden.
  4. The entrance to the Mishkan faced East. The Keruvim guarded the entrance to Gan Eden which was located in the East as well.

In both the details of the construction of the Mishkan itself and other sources in Tanach there are parallels between the construction and activity in the Mishkan and the story of Gan Eden. The focus on the first story of creation, to the exclusion of the Gan Eden narrative is somewhat strange then. What drove R. Yaakov b. R. Asi to focus exclusively on the first story of creation in his Midrash?

While I don’t feel qualified to offer a definitive solution to this question, I would like to propose two possible answers. The first is that paralleling the construction of the Mishkan to the second creation story, and especially the story of Gan Eden, would be unthinkable. After all, the Gan Eden experiment was a failed one, and the sin of Adam and Chava caused mankind’s expulsion from the garden. The Mishkan should not, and historically did not, suffer the same fate, and such a comparison would be implausible.

The second answer is that, instead of avoiding mankind’s failures, the midrash’s parallel is meant to emphasize the active human element in the construction of the Mishkan. The first creation story has G-d at its center. He creates the world in seven days, and no other character that appears has any major role to play in comparison. The physical construction of the Mishkan, on the other hand, is left totally to mankind. By juxtaposing the human construction of the Mishkan with the divine creation of the universe, the midrash highlights a tension in the human construction of a house for G-d. This tension is most obvious, perhaps, when the midrash reaches the seventh day, and Moshe’s blessing is equated to G-d’s. And yet, while this tension is apparent, the midrash does not fail to remind us that human construction can be equivalent, in some way, to Godly creation.

Yakov Ellenbogen (SBM 2013, 2014, 2015), a native of Sharon, MA, is a Junior at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alavim and Yeshivat Har Etzion.


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