*rabbi’s note: I would have loved to have had the time to go into great detailed explanation of each and every nuance of the various arguments alluded to here and bring together all of the relevant Torah verses, midrash, Talmud, and comments. Unfortunately, time does not allow for such a detailed analysis this year – God willing in the future.*
Had the Torah been written out in a neat, chronologically intelligible manner it would be easier to understand, but it would also speak more to the linear side of human experience and that’s just not how our brains really work. Most people tend to organize experiences in their consciousness around the relationships those experiences have to one another rather than the relationship between those experiences and the specific chronology in which they occurred. The Torah is very similar. Passages are more often grouped by content rather than by chronological context. And in Parashat Pekudei there is a seemingly straightforward verse which either works to create an intelligible chronology or it completely complicates the matter! Why should it be so simple?
The Torah says:
Hashem spoke to Moshe saying. On the first day of the first month; you should raise the Mishkan, the Ohel Mo’ed. (Ex. 40:1-2).
Why is this a problematic verse when it seems to straightforward? Because the tradition teaches that the first day the Mishkan was in use was Rosh Hodesh Nisan, and the Torah teaches that Moshe, Aharon, and the priests practiced the rites for seven days. So, reason demands that in order for them to have practiced the rituals for seven days they needed to be doing so inside of the Mishkan. That would mean that the Mishkan was not used officially for the first time until the 8th of Nisan unless they set it up on the 23rd of Adar.
So here’s the real question: how do we define when something is completed?
Elsewhere in the Torah it states: “On the day Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan…” (Num. 7:1). So this is a hint that it took Moshe more than one day to actually complete the structure. So then it stands to reason that either Moshe began erecting the Mishkan before the 23rd of Adar in order to have the seven days before Rosh Hodesh Nisan, or perhaps he started on the 23rd of Adar so that it would be completed in time for Rosh Hodesh Nisan. Or, according to the Midrash, there is another explanation.
Moshe and the Levi’im had to practice their work no less than Aharon and the Levi’im had to practice their work. Therefore, each day beginning on the 23rd of Adar, Moshe and the Levi’im would erect the Mishkan, Aharon and the priests would practice their rituals, and then the Mishkan would be dismantled at the end of the day. On Rosh Hodesh Nisan Moshe and the Levi’im raised the Mishkan for the last time, thereby “Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan,” and Aharon and the priests did their first official service which was then disrupted by the death of Nadav and Avihu.
Interestingly, R’ Avraham ibn Ezra disagrees. He holds, based on logic – and ignoring all of the midrash and discussion in both the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi and generations of tradition which hold in opposition to him – that the seven days of practice began on Rosh Hodesh Nisan and the first day the Mishkan was officially used was the 8th of Nisan.
The Or HaHayyim argues that the seven days of practice were done outside the tent without the benefit of the final arrangement of the Mishkan and its vessels.
Ramban argues that the variant opinions which disagree with the midrashic and Talmudic traditions could be respectable minority opinions and there is reason to support both positions, however ultimately there is simply no reliable chronology in Torah (which, interestingly, is a position he often rejects).
The question, then, must again be asked, how do we define “complete”? Was it completed the first time it was put together or was it completed the first time it was put to use? And here’s what I love, in all of the debating around this matter not a single commentator argues a commentator with a differing point of view is incorrect, and often they will.
This question of how one define’s complete reminds me of this (relatively) well known story from the Talmud:
One day Rabbi Yoḥanan was swimming in the Jordan. Reish Lakish (who was a bandit) saw him and jumped into the Jordan after him. [Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: Your strength should be for Torah! [Reish Lakish] said to him: Your beauty should be for women! [Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: If you turn back I will bring you my sister who is more beautiful than I. [Reish Lakish] agreed. He tried to go back to gather his belongings but he was not able to do so. [Rabbi Yoḥanan] reviewed Scripture and Mishnah and made him into a great man.
One day they were disagreeing in the study hall.
“The sword, the knife, the dagger, the spear, the hand sickle, the grain sickle” from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity?
From the moment when their fabrication is completed.
When is their fabrication completed?
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: When they are smelted in the furnace.
Reish Lakish said: When they are polished in the water.
[Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to [Reish Lakish]: a bandit knows his banditry.
[Reish Lakish] said to [Rabbi Yoḥanan]: And how have you benefitted me? There they called me ‘rabbi,’ and here they call me ‘rabbi’!
[Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to [Reish Lakish]: I benefitted you by bringing you near under the wings of the shekhinah!
Rabbi Yoḥanan became ill of mind and Reish Lakish became ill [of body]. His sister came crying and said to him: Do something for the sake of my children! He said to her: “Leave your orphans, I will sustain them,” (Jer. 49:11). Do something for the sake of my widowhood! He said to her: “Your widows may trust in me,” (ibid.). The soul of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish rested and Rabbi Yoḥanan grieved after him a great deal.
The Rabbis said: Who will go and restore his mind? Rabbi Elazar ben Padat should go because his studies are sharp. He went and sat before him and anything which Rabbi Yoḥanan said, [Rabbi Elazar] said to him: there is a teaching which supports you!
He said: You are like Bar Lakisha?! Bar Lakisha, whenever I would say anything he would post twenty-four difficulties for me and I would give him twenty-four solutions, and the matter would become clear. But you say ‘a teaching supports you,’ Do I not already know that I’ve spoken nicely?!
[Rabbi Yoḥanan] would walk around tearing his clothes and crying, Where are you Bar Lakisha!? Where are you Bar Lakisha?! and he screamed until mind was polished.
The Rabbis sought mercy for him and his soul rested.
R’ Yohanan and Reish Lakish let their disagreement get personal and it had dramatic unintended consequences. The Mishkan is a model of a unified society, a collective endeavor of togetherness. The Torah, ultimately, reminds us – it does not matter whether the Mishkan was built for the first time on the 23rd of Adar or the 1st of Nisan, and how many time Moshe may have put it together and took it apart. What does matter is that we dedicate ourselves towards centering unification in our societal structure. This, at the end of the day, is what the Mishkan is supposed to teach us.