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As the Red Queen said to Alice (of Wonderland fame), “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” That’s exactly what we’ve been doing when we reach this week’s reading—we’ve been running very quickly, moving through Exodus, then Leviticus, and now Numbers—but we haven’t really gotten anywhere; we’re actually still in the same place: same place spatially, same place temporally.
Back in Exodus, at the end of chapter 40, to be exact, the Torah recounts how the mishkan was completed and dedicated.
In the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up. Moses set up the Tabernacle… just as the Lord had commanded Moses… When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the mishkan, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the mishkan, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle… For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Ex. 40:17–38)
As Exodus ends, the mishkan is completed, and these verses describe the details of its completion, and how the Shekhinah took up residence there. Now we move to Leviticus. In parashat Tzav, we read, after the sacrifices are described, how Aaron and his sons are prepared for ordination—a continuation of the dedication of the mishkan.
Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil. (Lev. 8:2)
In the next parashah, Shemini, after the ordination, we read,
Moses and Aaron then went inside the mishkan. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. (Lev. 9:23–24)
In this week’s sidra, the Torah seemingly returns us to this very same day, the day of the completion of the mishkan.
On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils. When he had anointed and consecrated them, the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before the Lord… (Num. 7:1–3)
Obviously, the classical commentators noted the apparent repetition of the description of the completion of the mishkan, and tried to reconcile the placement of these episodes in the Torah with their perception of when the event (or events) actually occurred. Of the several possibilities these are the most likely:
But, you say, the first option cannot be right. The ordination of the priests involved using the mishkan, so it must have existed before the ordination was completed, prior to the “eighth day.” Rashi, in supporting this option, however, points out concerning when the ordination occurred, that:
This section was said seven days before the setting up of the Tabernacle, for there is no earlier and later [no chronological order] in the Torah. (Commentary on Vayikra 8:2)
And he then comments concerning the description of the event in Numbers:
It does not say, “On the day [Moses] erected.” This teaches that throughout the seven days of installation Moshe erected and dismantled it, and on that day, he erected it without dismantling it. This is why it says, “On the day Moshe finished erecting”—that day his erecting ended. It was the first of the month of Nisan. On the second, the [red] cow was burned, on the third, they sprinkled with the first sprinkling, and on the seventh, [after having been sprinkled again] they were shaven. (Commentary on Bamidbar 7)
The key to this interpretation is that Num. 7:1 reads, “On the day Moses finished setting up...,” implying a process and allowing Rashi to posit that the structure was incomplete until after the seven days of ordination were completed.
The second option has the advantage that there is no need to assume that Moses had to reassemble the mishkan each day, and there appears to be a linear order to the narrative; for example, the text reports that the leaders brought their offerings on the day that the altar was anointed (Num. 7:10). According to Ex. 40:10–17, the altar was anointed on the first of Nisan—this is true even if the mishkan was reassembled each day during the seven days of Aaron’s ordination. But if the offering-bringing of the tribal leaders overlapped the time that the priests were isolated, then there would not have been a priest available to accept the sacrifice. However, this might not have been a problem.
The last option, where the elders began bringing their gifts on the “eighth day,” was offered by Ramban, and has the advantage that now there are priests present to accept the sacrifices, but it appears to ignore the text which states that they brought their offerings on the day that Moses completed the mishkan’s erection. But if we take the position of Rashi, that Moses was reassembling the mishkan daily, then this problem can be minimized. However, Ex. 40:17 does appear to confirm that the mishkan was finished on the first of Nisan, but an argument could be made that the text allows for its completion at a later date.
You can vote for the option of your choice, since there appears to be no clear answer about the precise order of events. One may ask why the Torah is so vague about the order of these events; the lack of describing when they actually occurred seems to be deliberate—the text easily could have stated the day each event took place. This might not be the point of these narratives, however. When they occurred might not be all that important, but why they occurred in the manner described in the Torah could be of very great importance. Let’s see how this might be.
The three descriptions of the completing of the mishkan appear to be coming from three different perspectives. In Exodus, we learned that on the day that the mishkan was completed God’s Presence descended and “the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle,” giving Exodus its triumphant conclusion. Here the point of view appears to be the glorious finale for a long project, a theophany that marks this episode as a celebration of God.
The perspective of the telling of the story of the mishkan’s completion in Leviticus is the priests’. The “Presence of the Lord [that] appeared to all the people” may very well have been the same Presence that occupied the mishkan at the end of Exodus, and the fire that consumed the sacrificial offering may have been part of the display described in Exodus. But the text’s point of view at this version of the telling of the event is the process and completion of the priests’ ordination.
Finally, the perspective of the description in our current sidra, Naso, is clearly that of the tribal leaders, who bring sacrifices on each day. The priests aren’t even mentioned during the description of the bringing of these offerings. The role of the tribal leaders here is clearly meant to represent the Israelite people, and is its perspective. So in this grand story spanning three books of the Bible, the relating of the events surrounding the completion of the mishkan, we can see how the Torah carefully constructs the telling of how the participants in its fabrication interact in its completion: God, the shaper of His holy nation; the priests, the intermediaries between God and the people; and the Israelite people, the new nation God is working to shape.
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