When studying the last chapters of Shemoth (Exodus), we are puzzled by the great amount of detail and repetition in the instructions relating to the building and the architecture of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). While the Torah is normally very parsimonious in its words, here we find an overflow of seemingly repetitious words and an unusual emphasis on detail. Not the smallest nuance is left out, and nothing is left to human imagination. Preciseness stands out, and every pin and string is mentioned.
This seems to stand in total opposition to the spiritual condition and devotion which was required of every Israelite when busy building or helping to erect the Mishkan. This required personal input, creativity and a great amount of inspiration which could only come from the depths of the human heart. This can not be restricted by rules and precise measurements. It also contradicts the very purpose of this structure. It was designed, as was later the Temple, to be the central place of divine worship and a source of ongoing inspiration. It was meant to fill men with a spirit of religious devotion in which the human heart and its emotions played a major role. In fact, it functioned as a place which, once man visited it, caused a total transformation in his/her personality.
Hundreds of times we are informed that man should be “urged by his heart” to build the Mishkan and to contribute in a spontaneous way to the upkeep of the building and its vessels and feel reborn upon entering there.
How do we reconcile these contradictions? Formality versus spontaneity; total commitment to the letter of the law versus unprecedented emotional outbursts of religious devotion. Are such notions not mutually exclusive and irreconcilable?
It is here that music becomes of vital interest. Let us recall an earlier observation concerning the great composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. (1685-1750) (1) In his music we find a similar pattern in which distinct rules of composition have to be followed with great precision and, yet, simultaneously give birth to a phenomenal outburst of creativity. With Bach, more than with anybody else, we find a great amount of repetition, a strict, nearly mathematical pattern combined with a nearly limitless creativity. Speaking from the point of view of musical composition, we enter a world of unprecedented genius.
Martin van Amerongen, Dutch author and music critic, writes in his book, “His Lightening, his Thunder; About the St. Matthew Passion”: “When one hears Bach’s music, it feels like being struck by an uppercut under the chin and staying unconscious for the rest of the day.” “Bach is the man of the iron fist, of the controlled emotions, who, notwithstanding this, shows great personal passion.” When Bach played himself clavecin (harpsichord) he was able to keep an eye on seven diverse musical patterns simultaneously, correct them and write variations on them without ever violating the rules of the traditional music of his days.
It is the combination of unyielding commitment to detail, accuracy and skill that stands out. True, there is the danger that one may fall into a kind of routine and lose out on the “real” music behind every note when one “just” plays it. Indeed, this is the worry of every conductor and orchestra. However, one is able to prevent this by going back to the original text and its score. There one discovers new perspectives, recreating the whole composition without changing one iota.
We would suggest that the reason for this wonderful occurrence is, since the mathematical preciseness does not allow for any expansion, the composer or musician is forced to use his creative talents to deepen what is already given. Instead of staying on the surface and only broadening the musical spectrum, the composer is duty bound to go to rock-bottom and to search for all possibilities inherent to the ground-norm and bring it to the surface. Like the archeologist, he searches for every little item and, unlike the former, reinforces it with new life.
This, we maintain, is what happened with the Mishkan, and this understanding solves the paradox of its architectural preciseness, detail, repetition and the need for genuine religious passion.
The setting of its architecture and its emphasis on detail in which nothing was left to the imagination is like the case of Bach’s “iron fist” which forced him to look deeper and search for all kinds of approaches which otherwise would have stayed unnoticed.
When listening to the nearly endless repetitions of musical patterns in Bach’s composition, his genius is revealed by his capacity to add one more note or one more instrument by which the same musical patterns sound totally different.
It is this that the worshipper in the Mishkan was offered: It was not the quantity of religious notes but their quality which was to be found in every pin and string in the Mishkan and which would uplift the spirits of the worshipper. Every repetition added another dimension depending on the context in which it appeared and the slight variations that accompanied it. (2)
Just like every keen listener of Bach’s compositions is indeed knocked unconscious, so every visitor of the Tabernacle would undergo a radical transformation when looking at the depths of its components and feeling their religious vibrations.
But such is not only true of the Tabernacle. It is just, if not more, true about all of the Torah. Any encounter with the text should knock us unconscious and make us stand in radical amazement. And in case this is not what we experience, then this should be a reminder that we have not yet reached our inner soul with which the great Musician has blessed us.
(1) See: Thoughts to Ponder 28
(2) For a full understanding of the religious and inspirational meaning of all the items in the Mishkan see especially the commentaries of Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808-1888) on Vayikra (Leviticus).