Down to the Details

25 Feb

by Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)

While Parshat Terumah deals primarily with the Tabernacle’s outer structure, Parshat Tetzaveh deals with what is inside, its inner workings and the daily routine within its confines.

For this reason, one section of the parshah deals with the priestly garments, in which the Torah emphasizes: “And they shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they enter the Tent of Meeting, or when they approach the Altar to minister in the holy place, so that they not bear iniquity and die 1.” This is how they must comport themselves, and anyone who does otherwise puts his life at risk.

The other section deals with the Priests’ investiture, describing all the tasks that must be performed inside the Tabernacle. Each part of the daily service that the Priests will later perform in the Tabernacle is already represented in the proceedings of the investiture days, although not necessarily in the same order.

Are all systems go?

The section on the Tabernacle – the command, the order of the service, the construction, the dismantling, and the actual performance of the tasks – repeats itself many times, to the point where it becomes wearisome. In order to understand these numerous minutely detailed repetitions, we must first analyze the nature of the Tabernacle itself. This instrument’s only test is whether it really works.

The Tabernacle is a type of instrument whose function is to connect the earth with heaven. To succeed in this task, it has to function properly, without any mishaps. This instrument’s only test is whether it really works. If it was assembled incorrectly, even if the error was only in the minutest detail, it does not matter if one had the best intentions when assembling it – it will not work; it will simply malfunction.

The construction of the Tabernacle can be compared to the construction of a spacecraft. A spacecraft is an extremely complex structure made of a multitude of parts, each one of which must be perfectly precise. First of all, all the calculations must all be correct. Then all the parts must be manufactured, and when construction begins, everything must be done exactly according to plan. An entire team of experts pores over each stage. One team checks the accuracy of the calculations; another checks whether the work was done according to all the specifications of the plans. Then an attempt is made to assemble all the parts, and even then everything must be checked: Do the screws really fit? Are they in the right place? Did anything fall out? Have any cracks developed? Once everything is assembled, the whole apparatus must be dismantled to verify whether all is truly in order. At the end of the entire process, after the arduous preparatory process is finally complete, comes the moment when someone presses a button and the real question arises: Will the spacecraft lift off or not?

In 1988, the Soviets sent two satellites to study Mars and its moons. The satellites were operated by solar energy, and for that purpose, they occasionally had to change their wing angle according to instructions they received from Earth. A daily communication lasting a few seconds was sent to them containing thousands of commands in computer code. These commands had to be checked on a daily basis, line after line, and then rechecked, so that no error should creep in. One day, someone erred and entered one incorrect letter in one of the lines of the program. Two days later, it was discovered that the satellite had shut down, was unable to change its wing angle, had depleted its batteries, and all contact with it was lost.

An incredibly expensive spacecraft was lost, all because of an error in one word, in one line, which caused it to shut down.

Thus, an incredibly expensive spacecraft was lost, all because of an error in one word, in one line, which caused it to shut down. The device may still exist somewhere in space, but it doesn’t do anything meaningful. It changed from an instrument that could have been of great benefit to a worthless, insignificant object.

Likewise, after the assembly and construction of the Tabernacle was finished, after the anointing, the sanctification, and all the preparation, the Tabernacle had to rise heavenward – its moment of truth. In this respect, the climax of the construction of the Tabernacle is not in its “launch,” but precisely in the days of investiture, 2 which, at first glance, appears to have been devoid of any suspense. After all, the Torah merely describes the attiring of the Priests and the bringing of the korbanot. In truth, however, there is a tremendous feeling of suspense that mounts with each and every verse in the narrative.

The Midrash relates that on each of the seven days of investiture, Moses would erect and dismantle the Tabernacle twice. After months of building the Tabernacle, and even though all appeared to be in order and the boards fit together, the Tabernacle was dismantled and rebuilt again and again.3 For Moses, the fact that the boards fit together was not sufficient; perhaps it does not stand securely. They checked everything, dismantling and assembling; everything is in its proper place. And yet the tension continues to mount: Does it work or not?

On each of the seven days of investiture, the Tabernacle was assembled, Aaron entered, bringing the korban and slaughtering it. Each time, nothing happened – so the Tabernacle was dismantled. It was impossible to know where an error might have crept in, so once again everything needed to be checked from the beginning to determine what might have been the problem. As Rashi and the other commentaries explain, it was only on the eighth day, when Aaron entered the Tent with Moses and they prayed together, that the heavenly fire finally descended upon the Altar. At that moment, everything suddenly happened at once: “God’s glory was then revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before God and consumed upon the Altar the whole offering and the fat parts. When the people saw this, they became ecstatic and threw themselves on their faces.”4

An entire nation – all 600,000 men, and all the women and children as well – waits with bated breath. The instructions for how to proceed are complex and detailed; the more progress that is made, the more the tension mounts. What will happen in the end? The Tabernacle is meant to be an instrument that connects the earth with heaven. Will it achieve this goal? Yet the final tasks that Moses, Aaron, and the Priests perform are precisely the least dramatic: Is the Menora in place? Was the ram offered at the right time? And then – “God’s glory was revealed to all the people,” fire descends from heaven, there is contact and a connection. The same picture appears at the dedication of the Temple as well, with all the suspense and the sigh of relief at the end.

The Tabernacle was an instrument whose every part was made with great precision. Everything had its own specifications: where it should stand, what its function is, etc. This is what makes the Tabernacle an instrument for receiving the Divine Presence. If it is made a little differently, if the Menorah is placed even slightly to the side, it will not work. Every one of these details forms the greater whole.

Importance of the details.

The passages describing the Tabernacle proceedings are so full of details that they are often perceived as some of the most boring parts of the Torah. Yet these details are repeated over and over again. Why does the Torah need to say exactly how the pants should be and where exactly the bells should be attached to the robe? The Torah also elaborates on the breastplate: It should have two rings, to which something else is attached, and to this attachment another thing is attached.

Why must the Torah mention these things? To teach us how to attach one clasp to another, or how to create gold settings? Even if these were indeed important details for us to know, why repeat these details so many times and ensconce them in the text of the Torah for eternity?

In truth, however, this story is full of suspense, almost like a cinematic thriller. How will all the intricate plans for the Tabernacle play out in reality? Did Bezalel make everything precisely according to the instructions? Did he perhaps attach one piece at the wrong angle, causing the whole enterprise to fail?

This story is full of suspense, almost like a cinematic thriller. How will all the intricate plans for the Tabernacle play out in reality?

When an ordinary garment is sewn, it makes no difference whether the seam is placed a little to the right or to the left of the proper design. But when a diving suit or space suit is produced, if it is not sewn properly and as a result a small tear develops, the result is catastrophic. This is not a children’s game, where someone mistakenly moves a little out of position or three steps ahead without any major consequence. Here, it is like an untrained homeowner who tries his hand at complicated electrical repairs. Even if he has seen the electrician take a certain tool, put it in a certain place, screw it in and turn it three times with his hand, and successfully repair the problem, if the untrained individual tries to imitate these steps he will likely electrocute himself. Every detail in the parshah is intensely serious. To go too far is a fatal mistake. As Aaron was told, he should not enter the Sanctuary without wearing the robe, “so that he not die.”5 In essence, the Torah is telling Aaron that this is not a test. He is dealing with a mighty flame, with the holy of holies. The story of the death of Aaron’s two sons relates to this very point. Nadav and Avihu, sons of the High Priest, enter, thinking that they are dealing with a simple matter. But when they make one misstep, they die as a result.

The Talmud describes the terror surrounding the High Priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. He is forbidden to remain inside too long, so as not to frighten the people.6 The Zohar comments that they would tie a rope to the High Priest’s foot, so that they could pull him out if he dies while inside.7 This is not because the place itself is frightening. The fact is that when inspections occasionally had to be made, people used to look inside and artisans would go in to perform renovations. If an artisan can enter, why is everyone seized with such terror when the High Priest is inside?

It is just like electricity; it depends on the situation.

The answer is that it is just like electricity; it depends on the situation. On an ordinary day, it is possible to go in and touch things without ill effect. On Yom Kippur, however, all the fuses are lit, the current is flowing, and those who enter risk their lives.

Inside the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle contains two vital components for forming the connection between heaven and earth. The first component is the vessels, and in Parshat Teruma we saw how they are made and what they are made of. The second component, the Tabernacle’s inner dimension, is the person who uses it. The Tabernacle is not an empty instrument; it is an instrument that depends on the people who operate it. The staff can consist of several thousand Priests, as in Second Temple times, or – as in the case of the Tabernacle – it can be a limited staff of several individuals.

In Parshat Tetzaveh we see that there are functions that are indispensable for the Tabernacle’s overall structure to work and achieve its purpose; without them, it simply does not respond. The entire parshah deals with service in the Sanctuary – the inner proceedings of the Tabernacle. What allows the system to operate is the inclusion of the human component, the people themselves, who are charged with ensuring that the walls do not remain merely walls but much more than that.


1.Ex. 28:35.

2.Lev. 8–9.

3.Numbers Rabbah 12

.4.Lev. 9:23–24.

5.Ex. 28:35.

6.Yoma 53b.

7.Emor 102a.

As taken from, ESSAY: Down to the Details (

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 25, 2021 in Uncategorized


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: