In the Beginning
As a result of a near mutiny, the overbearing and arrogant captain was forced to see a psychiatrist by order of the Commodore.
As soon as the captain settled down on the couch, the psychiatrist began the session by asking:
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
The captain said, “Okay. In the beginning I created heaven and the earth…"
In the beginning of Genesis, the Hebrew Bible devotes 31 verses to describe how G-d created the entire world. “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” In striking contrast, the Torah portions of this week—and the subsequent weeks—devote 371 verses to describe how the Jews created the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, in the desert.
This seems profoundly strange.
The universe spans some 176 Trillion Billion miles, and is an awesomely complex structure. After millennia of research, we have not yet scratched the surface of its untold depth and unbound mysteries. We have not even mastered the secrets embedded in a single cell. The Tabernacle, on the other hand, was around 150 feet long and 75 feet wide, and was a highly impressive structure, but essentially a small tent; a mini mobile "shtibel."
Why would the Torah be so expansive about the creation of a humble albeit splendorous tent in the desert and yet so terse about the creation of the cosmos with all of its infinite depth, majesty and grandeur? 31 verses for creation of the world, and almost half the book of Exodus for the creation of a mobile sanctuary!
Mortality into Eternity
This strange contrast conveys something profoundly important about the Torah’s perspective on life. For an infinite G-d to create a home for finite man is not a big deal. But for a finite man to create a home for an infinite G-d—that is a revolutionary notion. It constitutes the essential revolution of Judaism that from the fragmented pieces of our hearts we can construct a home for the Divine; that the ordinary stuff of human life can be carved into a dwelling place for the Almighty; that G-d craves to dwell in the space we designate for Him in the barren desert of human consciousness.
Creation of the universe is G-d's miracle—the miracle of converting energy into matter. Creation of a structure to house the Divine in a desert is man's miracle—the miracle of converting matter into energy; the wonder of a human being surpassing himself, transcending his finite egocentricity and turning his life into a home for the Divine—that story is deserving of close to 400 verses!
This is the essence of the Tabernacle story, which occupies almost half the book of Exodus and on the surface seems so remote from our present lifestyle: that a human being, through his or her minute and limited deeds, words and thoughts, can create a home for G-d in his or her daily life; that a frail and vulnerable human being is capable of creating a space in his or her heart for the living presence of G-d. This is the miracle of Torah.
The Talmud says it succinctly (Kesuvos 5a): "The deeds the good people are greater than the creation of heaven and earth."
This explains two enigmatic details about the Tabernacle story: 1) The obsession with details and nuances that seem irrelevant. G-d seems overly concerned with pegs, nails, beams, hooks, sockets, drapes, curtains, and bows. 2) Most of the measurements are half sizes not whole ones. Why not wholesome measurements?
Yet this captures the essence of the narrative. Our lives are defined by details, and most of them seem mundane. And we always do things in “half,” never complete, as we are fragmented creatures and there is always something left to do in order to complete the work. "No man dies with half of his ambitions fulfilled," states the Midrash. This, then, is the message of the story: our disjointed and fragmented lives, the many diverse details of our mundane life, can all become a home for the absolute and undefined reality of G-d.
(This essay is based on the discourse Gedolim Maasei Tzadikkim 5685 (1925), by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson).