Whenever a major project is completed, it is a time of joy and jubilation. Whether one builds a house, a skyscraper or a cruise ship, a great deal of effort goes into it, and when it is completed, everyone is to be commended – those who invested (or contributed), those who designed it, and those who toiled to build it. Imagine the jubilation when the Israelites completed the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary or Tabernacle, in the desert on their way to the Holy Land.
This week’s double portion, Vayakhel and Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38) notes the completion of this holy structure. Moses praised the Israelites for contributing even more than was necessary, and provides a detailed accounting of all of the expenses so that there would be no distrust nor allegations of fraud or misappropriation. There are those who joke that this was one of the few construction projects in human history that was concluded on time and on budget.
However, there is one aspect of Moses’ address to the Israelites that seemed out of place and quite troubling. Instead of declaring that the Mishkan was now complete and that it would be the forerunner of the Temple, he begins with what appears to be a foreboding sense of doom. The portion of Pekudei (reckoning, or “accounting) begins in 38:21, “These are the reckoning of the Mishkan — the Mishkan of testimony. ” The Midrash is concerned with Moses’ repetitive expression. Why does he repeat the words “Mishkan — Mishkan?” He could easily have said, “These are the reckonings of the Mishkan of testimony.”? The Midrash answers, homiletically, that the word Mishkan has a close relative in the word Mashkon — collateral. Moses was alluding, “to the two Temples that were taken back by God as collateral for the sins of Israel.”
Why on a day that should be nothing but joyful, on the day that the Israelites celebrated the completion of the Mishkan, does Moses allude to impending doom? Wouldn’t such talk be totally demoralizing? What lesson can we learn from this?
According to Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, Moses injected a sense of seriousness into the joy of dedication for a very good reason. He wanted to warn the Jewish people that even the greatest gifts are not permanent. Even the Mishkan will not last forever.
As a rabbi, I probably come in contact with more people experiencing loss than most others. Indeed every funeral that I conduct is, by definition, proof that nothing, or nobody, lasts forever. Over the years, I’ve officiated at funerals where someone loses a spouse after 50, 60, or more years. And even in instances when a centenarian dies, someone over the age of 100, I will often hear the widow or widower say “I don’t know how this could have happened – “He’s never been sick” or “She was the picture of health.” When the angel of death arrives, we realize that if we love someone, we never have enough time with them.
And there are edifices throughout the world that have also “died” over the years, even if they are rediscovered or refurbished. There are ancient synagogues, churches, temples, and cities that have been unearthed. Think of the ruins in Rome and Athens, and other places throughout the world. Some of the greatest structures in the world have fallen into disuse and have structurally deteriorated. They bear testimony to the fleeting nature of everything around us.
Yes, everyone that we know and every building that we have ever seen or will ever see is here on earth temporarily. Our sages were aware of that by associating the word “Mishkan” (the Tabernacle) with the word “Mashkon” (collateral), which can be claimed by the lender at any time by the rightful owner, God Almighty. Therefore, knowing that all that we have and all we see is fleeting, and if we wish to appreciate life fully, we should be grateful for what we have and cherish it.
Finally, there is a “silver lining” that we should always remember. A Greek philosopher once wrote, “Everything in life is temporary. So if things are going good, enjoy it because it won’t last forever. And if things are going bad, don’t worry. It can’t last forever either!”