The Central Ontago Rail Trail in southeast New Zealand contains a model of our solar system. With the sun at the trail’s head, the orbits of the planets extend for several miles with mostly empty space between them. The beauty of scale models is that they allow us to gain insights about the full-sized entity. Similarly, maps are flat scale models of some area or place we wish to understand.
In this week’s double Torah portion of Vayakel-Pekudei, we receive additional instructions about building the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle, which becomes the prototype for the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It is the place where God’s presence dwells and where we can more directly encounter God. The structure of the Mishkan, and later the Temple, is not simply a building whipped up by the imagination of clever architects. The plans were given by God to the people through Moses (Ex 39:32). Just as God created the earth, our realm, we extended God’s realm to earth. The Mishkan is a model of heaven in miniature and thus a fitting place for God’s presence to dwell on earth. But the Mishkan is not only a tangible model of heaven on earth, it is also a map.
We can draw out a map of the Mishkan, with its most holy place from which God’s blessing of fecundity flows. This sacred center, called the Holy of Holies, is separated by a curtain, protecting us from God’s awesome power. Around the sacred center is a larger chamber with the accoutrements that symbolize our ongoing relationship to God: the lampstand and the shewbread. Further out, we find the altar with its four horned corners defining the space where we bring our offerings to God, those offerings being the product of the blessings we receive. Just as the Mishkan is a model of the cosmos in miniature, anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests that the Torah’s authors also applied their sacred map of God’s holy realm — the sacred center hidden by a curtain, the outer chamber with the accoutrements, the altar with the four corners, etc. — and overlaid that map on different beings and places.
We take the sacred map and we overlay it on our farmland and we see a familiar cycle. Just as God created the world and then we created a sacred place for God to dwell in the world, God gave us the Promised Land upon which we work to produce food. Just as the four corners of the altar define the place where we bring the product of our work, the four corners of our fields define the place where we grow our produce. What is grown on our four-cornered field belongs to us, except what is produced on the four corners themselves (Lev. 19:9, 23:22) which we bring to God.
And who does this sacred work of producing this food? The very same people who cover themselves with garments decorated with fringes on their four corners (Deuteronomy 22:12). Our Mishkan-map suggests that we are the sacred tools which God uses to produce God’s fruitful blessing.
But we are more than God’s tools. God tells us not to cut the corners of our face and beard (Leviticus 19:27). We apply the sacred map to our land, our clothing, and now to our very face. Our map is suggesting that our words are the fruit of our mouths, and they too, should be used to bring blessing to the world.
For many of us, the Mishkan, and later the ancient Temple, feels foreign and distant. Animal sacrifice is not a meaningful way in which we would choose to interact with God. But understanding that our ancestors used the Mishkan as a sacred map means that we can continue to apply this map to our own lives just as the Rabbis have done for millenia.
With the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis tell us that we should apply the sacred map to our own home. On Shabbat, when we sit around the four corners of our dining table, they would have us understand that we are actually sitting around the four-cornered altar with which we shared meals with God (Megilah 29a). Shabbat dinner is not simply a meal, it is the possibility for sacred encounter.
Through our words and our acts, we can celebrate the gifts that come from the work of our hands partnering with God; just as the Torah may use the metaphor divine wisdom flowing from God’s face (Deuteronomy 34:10), blessing certainly flows from within the corners of our faces as we sit around the Shabbat table with our family and friends and reinforce the values and beliefs that are the foundation of our lives.