Parshat Vayakhel - Surprises of the Chatzer (Courtyard) 

Betzalel built the Tabernacle and its utensils according to a conceptual scheme.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism The New Temple Institute Visitor Center in Jerusalem
The New Temple Institute Visitor Center in Jerusalem
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Even though the Torah (in Parshat Terumah) presents the command to construct the Aron (Ark), Shulchan (Table) and Menorah before constructing the Mishkan’s edifice, Betzalel and his crew (in Parshat Vayakhel) first constructed the Keilim (Holy Articles – the Aron, Shulchan, etc.) and only afterwards constructed the Mishkan’s edifice. The Gemara (Berachot 55A, cited by Rashi on Shemot 38:22) explains this reverse of sequence as follows:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Betzalel’s name was a reflection of his wisdom. When the Holy One, blessed is He, told Moshe to instruct Betzalel, “Make Me a Mishkan, (and then an) Aron and Keilim”, Moshe went and reversed the order, instructing Betzalel, “Make an Aron, Keilim, and (then) the Mishkan.” Betzalel replied, “Moshe Rabbeinu: The way of the world is that a person first builds a house and afterwards places objects in the house, but you are telling me to first make an Aron, Keilim and (then) a Mishkan. According to your directive, where will I place the Keilim? Perhaps the Holy One, blessed is He, actually told you to construct a Mishkan, and (then) an Aron and Keilim.” Moshe replied to Betzalel, “It may very well be that you were in the Shadow of God (“B’tzel Kel”), such that you had knew this (inside) information!” (The Gemara thereupon proceeds to explain further Betzalel’s special knowledge of Divine wisdom.)

Although this narrative explains why Betzalel and his crew first constructed the Mishkan’s edifice and only afterwards constructed the Keilim, a major difficulty appears to arise: If the Keilim were not to be constructed until the place that would house them would be constructed first, why did Betzalel and his crew first construct the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet (Copper Altar) and Kiyor (Laver), as related in Shemot 38:1-8, and only afterwards construct the Chatzer (Courtyard), which was to house the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet and Kiyor, as related in Shemot 38:9-20? Why was the Chatzer not constructed first, in consonance with Betzalel’s mandate to first construct the area that would house the Keilim and only afterwards construct the Keilim?

The answer to this perplexity touches upon a fundamental difference between the Chatzer and the actual Mishkan edifice. The kedushah (sanctity) of the Mishkan edifice was a reflection of the Keilim that it was designed to contain. Inside the Aron were the Luchos (Tablets), and from upon the wings of the Aron’s Keruvim (Cherubs) did Hashem’s voice emanate when speaking to Moshe. The Aron was the most intense reflection of kedushah in the entire Mishkan, and accordingly, it was housed in the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim (Holy of Holies) section. The Shulchan and Menorah, as Chazal (the Sages) tell us, likewise represented Hashem’s Presence, the Shechinah, in different ways. These two Keilim were housed in the Kodesh (Holy) section of the Mishkan. The Mishkan’s kedushah, evidencing Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah (Manifestation of Hashem’s Presence), related directly to the Keilim that were housed therein.

The Chatzer, however, was a somewhat less intense area. Unlike the Mishkan edifice, comprised of the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim and the Kodesh sections, where only Kohanim entered, the Chatzer was open to those who were not Kohanim. Ordinary Jews assembled therein to sacrifice and to observe the Avodah (Service). Although the Chatzer housed the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshes and Kiyor, the sanctity of these Keilim did not represent Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah per se. Nonetheless, the Chatzer (and the Azarah area of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, which corresponded to the Chazter of the Mishkan) was part of the Machaneh Ha-Shechinah (Encampment of the Shechinah) area, along with the Mishkan edifice (and later the Heichal edifice of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, which was comprised of the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim and the Kodesh). Even though the Chatzer was apparently of lesser sanctity than the Mishkan edifice, as it did not contain Keilim representing Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah, and it was open to ordinary Jews, it had the full kedushah level of Machaneh Ha-Shechinah. How could this be?

The answer is that the Chatzer’s kedushah derived from the Mishkan edifice itself, rather than from the Chazter’s own Keilim. As such, the Chatzer served as an extension of the Mishkan edifice, and it thus enjoyed the same level of kedushah. The Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet and Kiyor were located and functioned in the Chatzer, but did not define its actual kedushah status.

Based on this understanding, we can appreciate why Betzalel, with his Divine wisdom, constructed the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet and Kiyor along with the rest of the Mishkan’s Keilim, before constructing the Chatzer, which would house the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet and Kiyor. Since the Chatzer’s kedushah would not reflect the kedushah of the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet and Kiyor, but would instead derive from the Mishkan’s edifice, such that the Mishkan’s edifice and Chazter would together comprise Machaneh Ha-Shechinah, there was no need to first construct the Chazter in dedication and preparation for the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshes and Kiyor, as these two Keilim were not intrinsic to the motif and kedushah status of the Chazter.

Betzalel’s logic of first constructing a house and then the objects that will be placed therein was not a mere pragmatic scheme, but was a conceptual vision of first constructing the loci whose essence would be reflected by their Keilim, as dedication and preparation for those Keilim. The Chatzer’s essence related to the Mishkan edifice as an extension of its Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah; the Chatzer’s kedushah did not derive from the Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet and Kiyor which it contained.

This notion operates in tandem with the message of another d’var Torah in this series, establishing the Mishkan both as an entity of extraordinary Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah, as well as a place where the Jew comes to approach Hashem. The Chazter, which manifests the kedushah of the Kodesh and the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim, yet is accessible to all for sacrifice and supplication, so magnificently embodies this beautiful duality.