The Torah dedicates over four hundred verses, spanning four parshiyot, to describing the building of the Mishkan: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me… like everything that I will show you, the form of the Tabernacle and the form of all its vessels… They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits in length… You shall make the Tabernacle of ten curtains – linin twisted with turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool… the length of each curtain should be twenty-eight cubits… You shall make planks for the Tabernacle and forty silver sockets under the twenty planks… Then the men came with the women, everyone whose heart motivated him brought all sorts of golden ornaments. Every man with whom was found turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool… and anyone who had acacia wood… All the wise hearted among those doing the work made ten curtains of linen twisted with turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool… They made the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, standing upright… Bezalel made the Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits in length, a cubit and a half in width, and a cubit and a half in height…”
Why is this story of the Mishkan’s construction so long; it appears so shlepped out and repetitive?
The medieval Spanish commentators address this issue. The Ralbag suggests that these lengthy passages represent an ancient style of writing, one we no longer appreciate. The Ramban proposes that these verses are “a sign of love and admiration” towards the Tabernacle and those that built it. After all, the Mishkan, a finely decorated structure housing some tremendous golden objects, was constructed with the donated treasures of a group of remarkably willing and generous ex-slaves, who spared no cost in building a place dedicated to worshipping God, a house for Him to “dwell in their midst.”
Alternatively, reading these long lists of materials, instructions, and the Mishkan’s implementation, makes us almost feel and experience the creation of the Mishkan. The text itself, this lengthy repetitious literary style, may serve to give us as readers a sense of the building project and how immense and thorough it.
Yet, examining the narrative more carefully, there may be another reason why so much ink is used in describing the Mishkan’s construction. Really, this isn’t one long narrative. The story is split into two. The first section, the parshiyot of Terumah and Tezaveh, details the plans of the Mishkan, it’s blueprint. God tells Moshe what He wants this desert Sanctuary and its vessels to look like. Then, in the parshiyot of Vayakel and Pekudei, the Torah charts how the Jewish People, following Moshe’s instructions, actually built it. First, we read the plan, God’s commands and instructions. All these descriptions are then repeated in telling how the Jewish People carried them out.
The Torah’s message is clear.
The Torah could have tacked onto the end of the lengthy parshiyot of Terumah and Tezaveh that “the Jewish People did all that Moshe commanded them.” Yet it wanted to describe the Jewish People following the plans and building the Mishkan in full. The Jewish People were actively building and working, constructing and creating this Mishkan in the real world, and the Torah wanted to show us how important that was. Whilst plans, thoughts, and ideas are all of immense importance, so too are actions. God first transmitted the elaborate plans of the Mishkan to Moshe in all its detail; but then, when the people got busy implementing this blueprint, transporting and carving the wooden beams, weaving the cloth panels, and fashioning the gold and silver vessels, all those descriptions deserved to be written out again in full, verses and verses not of plans, but of actions, of physical building and productivity. Something altogether different. Carrying out these plans, making a practical difference in the world, is a completely new story, warranting a fresh description of its own.
The Torah, in its lengthy descriptions of the design and construction of the Mishkan, wanted to show us that actions are just as important as ideals, working to fulfil them is just as much of a story.