Why Do The Details Matter?
The Significance Of The Tabernacle's Colors
There are some commandments that are easy to connect to. Nobody wonders why it's prohibited to murder or steal. People connect with the spiritual and historical significance of the festivals. And the command to build a Mishkan, a home for God in the midst of the Israelite camp, could be one – if it weren't for those inscrutable details.
Ram skins. Acacia wood. Bells and pomegranates. And cubits – oh, the cubits. So many of us can't connect to these details, because they don't seem to mean anything. They don't have any obvious spiritual significance. If we dig a little deeper, though, maybe we could find some. Join Daniel Loewenstein as he digs into the meaning of one of the features of the Mishkan: the colors of the walls.
But it doesn't end there; the Bible also seems to indicate that each color on its own has a unique meaning. For a deeper discussion, read Daniel's blog: A Deeper Dive Into The Symbolism Of The Tabernacle's Colors
Click here to watch: "Noach: Why A Flood, Of All Things?"
Hi! This is Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Pekudei.
Here we are at the end of the Book of Exodus, and the great Mishkan is finally complete. Many chapters ago, in Parashat Terumah, God made an incredible offer to the Children of Israel: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם. They could make a holy place, almost like a small home, and God would rest His presence there, staying with the Children of Israel, always. The people responded eagerly, with laymen donating their valuables and craftsmen donating their time and skill. And in the end, it all pays off – the work is finished, and God’s presence descends into the Mishkan, residing at the very center of His beloved people’s camp.
At least, that’s the romantic version of the last fifteen chapters of Exodus. If you look through the actual text, though, it reads less like a love story between God and His people, and more like a giant Ikea manual.
What Was so Significant About the Tabernacle's Details?You’ve got building materials, dimensions of parts, assembly instructions. These are the precious metals you’ll need, here are the colors of the fabrics you’ll be using, this is what the final product should look like.
But if this is really about making a home for God in the midst of the people, we have to ask – why does God care so much about the details? Why spend chapter after chapter prescribing lengths, widths, wool dyes and wood species? Is it like making a potion in Harry Potter – if you don’t follow the recipe, the Mishkan won’t work? Why are the details so important?
Here’s what I’d like to suggest: Maybe the reason the Torah spends so much time explaining the Mishkan’s minutiae - is that the details all mean something. They’re not part of some magic formula, or a deity’s petty preferences. They embody different ideas, ideas that are so important, God literally instructed they be sown into the fabric of His home.
And I’d actually like to take this one step further, and show what this idea – that the details contain meaning – might look like. And I want to focus on one of the most random-seeming set of details in the Mishkan’s design: the colors of the fabrics.
The Significance of the Tabernacle's Veil ColorsHere’s a quick primer. There are four fabrics God mandated the Israelites use for the Mishkan:
- Techeilet, wool dyed blue;
- Argaman, wool dyed purple;
- Tola’at Shani, wool dyed red; and,
- Shesh, linen, which has a natural white coloring.
All of these fabrics were woven together to make the curtains that formed the inner walls of the Mishkan, as well as most of the clothes of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and the screens covering each of the three entranceways.
So clearly these fabrics are an essential part of the Mishkan’s eclectic color scheme. But is there a hidden deeper meaning to them? It’s hard to imagine. What do you get when you combine red, blue, purple and white – it sounds like the beginning of a joke, not a profound religious mystery. Could these fabrics and their colors really contain more meaning than meets the eye?
The great 19th century scholar R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has a fascinating theory about what each of the colored fabrics represents on its own. I wrote a blog post about this theory, you can find a link in the description if you’re interested. But for now, I’d like to share with you a possible alternative theory, one that may help us understand the meaning of the colored fabrics as a whole.
What Do the Tabernacle's Colors Mean?Picture the interwoven fabrics – the white, the red, the blue, and the purple too. Stripes of color, one alongside the next. Is the image reminiscent of anything? Maybe another collection of color stripes, arranged in a row, laden with symbolic significance? I’d like to suggest that, despite the fact that there are a few gaps, this cloth, with its different colors, side by side, part of one entity yet still distinct – it might be evoking the covenant of the rainbow.
Yes. Way back towards the beginning of Genesis, God flooded the Earth, sparing only Noah and his family. And afterward, God promised never to flood the Earth again. And the symbol of that promise was a rainbow. What I’m suggesting is that God may have deliberately commanded the Israelites to use multi-colored fabrics in the Mishkan to evoke that particular symbol.
But why, you ask? What message would rainbow-inspired fabrics be meant to convey? The answer might lie in a deeper understanding of the meaning of the original rainbow.
Biblical Connections to the Tabernacle's Curtain Colors?Take a look, if you get a chance, at a video Rabbi Fohrman made about Parshat Noach, in which he argues that there is a near-exact parallel between the events of the flood, in Genesis chapters 8 and 9, and the events of creation in Genesis chapter 1. In both cases, there’s a divine wind hovering on the water; in both cases, water recedes and reveals the land… and these parallels continue, right on down to God’s blessing to man to be fruitful and multiply, in both creation and in the aftermath of the flood.
So what do these parallels mean? Rabbi Fohrman suggests that when God decides to “start over” with Noah, it seems to be a replaying of creation. The world is being created all over again. But there are some crucial differences between the first world and the new world – most notably the fact that post-flood, man is allowed to eat meat. He attains a new level of dominance over the other inhabitants of this world.
As I understood it, Rabbi Fohrman was suggesting that the new post-flood world had become man’s world, in a way it wasn’t before. Humanity was given the keys, so to speak, to this world, and with that came more rights – like the right to eat meat – but also more responsibilities. And God culminated this recreation with the promise not to flood that world again – because the world’s success or failure was now in man’s hands.
Now isn’t it interesting that the capstone of this new paradigm, this change in ownership of the world, is the rainbow? What does a rainbow mean? There are dozens of explanations, but one in particular always resonated with me the most: a rainbow is really just a single beam of white light, broken into its constituent parts. Think about that: isn’t it a perfect analog for reality itself? Something composed of many parts, but at its core, essentially unified? There’s so much diversity in the universe; so many different things, animate and inanimate, in creation. But all this nearly infinite complexity, is really just a refraction of a single, blinding, unified Source: it’s all, somehow, a single beam of God’s white light.
Of course, when God looks at creation, He can see that grand, sweeping unity. But humans are finite. Our perspective is limited. We can’t exist without reality being broken into its constituent parts. If we didn’t have things like space and time, if we couldn’t tell one moment or place or person or idea apart from the next, we wouldn’t be able to function.
Maybe that makes the rainbow the most perfect symbol for the refracted, broken up perspective of man. The rainbow is the very embodiment of what it means to see reality as a finite, physical being – to see the colors, because the white is just beyond us. And that, it follows, is why God used the rainbow to symbolize the transition of “ownership” of the world to man – it would have been akin to waving humanity’s flag on high – a declaration that this was now man’s world.
Now let’s bring it back to the Mishkan. We’re suggesting that the colors of the rainbow actually represent man’s dominion over earth. If that’s true, though, it would seem like that’s actually the worst thing we could put in the Mishkan. Humanity’s flag, in God’s house? It’s like saying, “Hi, God, welcome to our midst – but this is our house, and don’t You forget it!” It’s the literal opposite of what we’d want to do!
But maybe that’s because we’ve been looking at these colors the wrong way.
The Spiritual Significance of the Tabernacle's ColorsLet me ask you – where, in the physical structure of the Mishkan, do we find the multi-colored fabrics? In the center of the Holy of Holies? On the ark, or the altar? No. We find them on the walls and the entranceways. The periphery. So maybe the point isn’t that humanity’s flag is in the Mishkan, but that it’s pushed to the sides of the Mishkan. Man’s dominion stops at the walls. Inside them, in the airspace of the Holy chambers, man no longer holds sway. Perhaps that’s the deeper message of the rainbow – that yes, in general, the physical world is man’s terrain. But this small, sacred space is beyond the rainbow. It does not belong to the physical world anymore. This is God’s place.
That switch in perspective – the mental shift of seeing ourselves not at the center, but at the periphery – perhaps that’s one of the lessons the Mishkan is trying to teach. And that lesson is still relevant, even without the Mishkan in our midst. Because there’s this funny irony when it comes to serving God. You’d think that if we recognize the existence of a supreme, infinite Being that rules all, that would make us all more humble people. How could it not? And yet, ironically, sometimes the knowledge that we were created in God’s image, and that God chose to have a relationship with us, it actually does the opposite. It goes to our heads. It can make us think we’re the center of the universe.
At one point in history, that was actually quite literal – people believed that the center of the universe was Earth, that the sun and the stars all revolved around us, and when scientists began to discover contradicting evidence, religious leaders censored their work, even persecuted them. They couldn’t accept that humanity might not be in the center. And I believe it’s that same sense of self-importance that leads people to look down on people outside of their faith or their denomination. Because of course, if I really serve God – you know, the right way – that makes me more important than those other people, doesn’t it? I’m worth more than them. In the grand cosmic scheme, they’re nobody, but I’m somebody. They’re just part of the scenery, but I’m center stage. It’s that misguided sense that because I serve the great Being at the center of the universe, I’m there in the center, too.
Is there a greatness to humanity? Is there an element of privilege in being a member of God’s chosen people? Of course. But we can’t channel the privilege without the sense of responsibility, we can’t focus on our greatness, but ignore our smallness. And maybe that’s what the colored fabrics of the Mishkan are telling us: that part of welcoming God into our lives means remembering our place. Contextualizing our own significance. If we really want God to dwell with us, we have to check our importance at the door, and remember what the center of our universe is really supposed to be.