Much of this parsha, Beha'alotcha, concerns the mishkan (Tabernacle) which always is in the center of the Israelites’ camp. The Torah has a long description of various aspects concerning the Mishkan which actually begins in last week’s parsha. In the midst of this, there is also a detailed description of how and when the Pesach sacrifice is to be offered.
This passage about the Pesach sacrifice is 16 verses, in the middle a large portion of Torah concerning the Mishkan. At first it seems unrelated, but upon thinking about it maybe the two are connected.
The Mishkan was the center of the Israelite community. The twelve tribes camped around it. It was the place where sacrifices were offered, as well as the place of assembly. Moses communicates with God in the Tent of Meeting, which is the outer part of the Mishkan. God’s presence hovered above the Mishkan as a cloud, as well as being in and amongst the people. You know the verse (Shemot 25:8): "They shall build me a Mishkan and I will dwell among them". Let’s sing it. Well you get the idea, the Mishkan was pretty important and central to the Israelites.
When I thought of the centrality of the Mishkan, the importance of the Pesach sacrifice in this parsha became apparent. The Pesach sacrifice was a reminder for the Israelites of the night of their exodus from the land of Egypt. So this sacrifice was like an anniversary gift to God for freeing them from Pharaoh’s bondage, and taking them to be God’s covenantal people. It is significant that we read this part of the Torah right after Shavuot, the festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah, the time when the relationship between God and the Israelites began. With this in mind, we can understand the importance of offering the sacrifice on a specific day. The emphasis on all Israelites offering this sacrifice on the fourteenth of Nissan, the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt, or on the date a month later, if they cannot offer it on the proper date, makes more sense. Since God brought all of the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, it is reasonable that God wants all Israelites to offer a sacrifice in remembrance of this event and likewise that everybody wanted to celebrate this.
The Mishkan was the physical center of the Israelite community and the Pesach sacrifice represents the mental-emotional-spiritual center. Together these two are a large part of the foundation of what has become Judaism. Both have been transformed through the ages. The First and Second Temples were built as near-replicas of the Mishkan. This is especially true considering that all three were used to offer sacrifices.
When the Temples were destroyed, synagogues, within individual Jewish communities, replaced them as places of worship. Although synagogues do not physically resemble the Mishkan, their purpose as places of communal assembly and prayer is the same. Now there is often more than one synagogue in a geographical location depending on how many strands of Judaism there are, such as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Renewal, each of which has at least one corresponding synagogue. Our synagogue is the central meeting place for Conservative Jews in Berkeley, and we even have an Aron Hakodesh, the physical structure around Torah Ark, which is modeled after the Mishkan.
The Pesach sacrifice has been transformed through the ages too. Currently the anniversary remembrance of Pesach is celebrated with the first night seder which is held on the fourteenth of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish year. There is a symbolic Pesach sacrifice on each seder plate, either in the form of a lamb bone or something vegetarian like an avocado pit, especially in Berkeley. Some say that the recognition and explanation of the symbol of this sacrifice along with the Matzah and maror on the seder plate are the most important parts of the seder. In fact once when I was in the hospital over Pesach, my friend Rabbi David Cooper did an abbreviated seder with me in my hospital room, explaining these three items on the seder plate. The celebration of Pesach is more than just the first night seder. Torah says that the festival for Pesach lasts for seven days, and Modern Jews observe it for eight days. Judaism has added a second night seder as well. In Orthodox and Conservative shuls there are morning services on the first two and last two days of Pesach. And don’t forget that extravagant preparation we do for this holiday every year! This preparation can take up to a month.
Our liturgy too is full of references to Pesach, to God who brought us out of the land of Egypt. There is one such reference in the third paragraph of the Sh’ma, the central prayer in Judaism which traditional Jews say three times a day. This is also in addition to many blessings which refer to this event. Such as in psukei d’zimra and the Mi’Chamocha.
These two elements, the Mishkan and the Pesach sacrifice, are two of the foundational elements of Judaism. Our synagogue which one can say it is a contemporary manifestation of the Mishkan, is the physical place where we gather for davening, study and other activities. The remembrance of Pesach which the seder reminds us of is the historical and emotional experience that unites us as a people. Pesach is our defining moment. We would be lost without these two elements. The intermingling of the Pesach sacrifice with the Mishkan remind us of our spiritual foundation and spiritual home in Judaism.