Since this week’s Torah portion deals to a large extent with the structure of the Tabernacle and its utensils, which was detailed previously in Parshat Terumah, it is important to relate Abarbanel’s outline of the symbolic meanings which he described in Parshat Terumah.
The symbolism of the portable Tabernacle (Mishkan) and its utensils is not based on understandings that can be derived by human rational intellect, for G-d clearly has no need to physically symbolize concepts that Man can derive on his own. Additionally, Man’s intellect often leads him astray, especially when he connects the symbolism of the Mishkan to astronomical and other more spiritual matters. Therefore it is much more fitting to understand the Mishkan as a means to assist us in our faith in the Divinely-ordained Torah and mitzvot, in a way that each symbol and construct will guide us to behave properly according to the dictates of the Torah.
The Holy of Holies, within which were the Ark and Tablets, the special covering, and the cherubim, symbolizes that our purpose is to be involved in G-d’s Torah and mitzvot. This is directly symbolized by the Tablets and the adjacent Torah scroll within the Ark. The gold cover of the Ark indicates that the true crown is the crown of Torah. The cherubim, one a male and the other a female child, represent the need to be involved in Torah from our youth. Their wings point upward to tell us that everything emanates from G-d above and they face each other to show the importance of love for our fellow Jews. The Holy of Holies symbolizes the concept of Torah l’shma — learning Torah and performing mitzvot for their own sake, without any expectation of reward.
The next section, the Inner Courtyard is separated from the Holy of Holies by a curtain, as it represents a different idea — the rewards that G-d grants to those who serve Him. The Menorah, the Table of show-bread and the golden incense Altar indicate that even though the ultimate goal is to keep Torah and mitzvot without any expectation of reward, G-d still rewards those who are faithful to Him. The Table with its twelve loaves of bread represents the material rewards of wealth and honor which result from G-d’s providence. This is also indicated by its construction out of pure gold. The number twelve could point to the months of the year, in that our sustenance is constant, and also to the twelve tribes to indicate that all Jews are included, and also the twelve constellations to indicate that the entire physical universe is under G-d’s direction.
Besides the body, the soul is also rewarded with wisdom and knowledge as symbolized by the Menorah. The seven flames represent the seven types of wisdom. The center flame points toward the Holy of Holies and the other six flames point toward the center flame to indicate that all true wisdom emanates from the contents of the Ark. The Menorah is made from solid gold to indicate that this true wisdom is enduring, eternal and unadulterated by false ideas. The cups, knobs, and flowers represent the different branches of knowledge, their distinctions and their interdependence, as one leads to the next. Yet because the Menorah was fashioned from one solid piece of gold indicates that all knowledge is unified through Torah.
The third object in the Inner Courtyard, the golden incense Altar represents the soul’s reward of an eternal existence after the death of the body. This is symbolized by the smoke which rises upward. This Altar is situated against the Holy of Holies and is not connected to the Table or the Menorah. This is an indication that the eternity of the soul is not acquired through an accumulation of wealth and honor as symbolized by the Table, or by the intellect as symbolized by the Menorah, but rather through adherence to Torah and mitzvot. The Altar is covered with gold to indicate the importance and eternity of the World-to-Come. Yet underneath the gold is wood to teach us that it is through our physical actions which are as ephemeral as wood, that we can merit the eternal life symbolized by the gold.
These three types of reward are also contained in the three verses of the Priestly Blessing. The first line speaks of blessing and guarding, a reference to our material blessings, represented by the Table and show-bread. The second line speaks of G-d shining His ‘face’ on us, a reference to the shining light of wisdom represented by the Menorah. The third line speaks of peace or complete fulfillment, a reference to the fulfillment of our purpose in life through the eternity of the soul as represented by the Altar of gold.
The third division of the Mishkan, the Outer Courtyard, contains the sacrificial copper Altar and its ramp, as well as the washing basin. The Altar symbolizes the inevitable physical death of our body. Without the awareness of death we cannot attain fear of G-d or the ability to keep His Torah. Nor will we merit the rewards that follow. For this reason the incense Altar comes after the sacrificial Altar to indicate that only after death do we merit our ultimate reward. It is made of copper, not gold, to indicate the fragility of the physical world. Its netting symbolizes the fact that the awareness of death is like a net spread over all of life, and its base is hollow to symbolize the hollowness of physical existence. It looks solid and permanent from the outside, but inside is only emptiness. The root of the word for ‘ramp’ is the same as the word for ‘destruction’, indicating that death is the ultimate destroyer. Finally, the prohibition against ascending to the Altar by way of steps is another play on words, as the root of the word ‘steps’ is the same as the expression ‘positive advantages’ — indicating that there are no positive advantages to be gained by death.
Finally, the washing basin is an indication that all the rewards previously described can only be attained when an individual is able to purify himself from his negative traits. The water of the washing basin represents the Torah, which is ultimately the only way to purify oneself and develop the sterling character that will result in G-d’s rewards.