One of the fiercest debates amongst medieval biblical commentaries was the extent to which parts of the Torah might be allegorical. The Ramban (Breisheet 18:1) does not take too kindly to the position of the Rambam (Guide 2:42) that the visit of the three angels to Abraham, or Jacob's struggle with an angel, was a prophetic vision that does not reflect physical reality. In more recent times, a related issue has arisen regarding the understanding of the “six days” of Creation.

While many may debate the literal nature of Torah, few, if any, debate the symbolism of the Torah. And nowhere do the commentaries find more symbolism than in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that served as the focal point of our service towards G-d. With so much space devoted to describing its construction, and the seemingly excessive repetition of so many details, biblical exegetes were left with little choice but to search for the symbolism within the text.

The poles that were to be a constant fixture of the ark, possibly detracting from its natural beauty, for example, teach the portability of Torah, the ease with which Torah must be able to move from place to place. The cherubim, the childlike figures adorning the ark, serve as symbols of the fact that worship of G-d requires us to be like children: innocent, pure, and recognizing our need for others. Adults, who often display cynicism and hubris, consequently find sincere service of G-d most difficult.

The Torah's ordering of the construction of the Mishkan highlights the primacy of our spiritual pursuits. The Torah begins its description of the Mishkan with the details of the Aron. The Aron was set in the Holy of Holies, where only one person (the kohen gadol), one day a year (Yom Kippur), could enter. Just the knowledge that the ark containing the aseret hadibrot was on the Temple grounds was to be enough to inspire the Jewish people. Often that which is hidden is more powerful than the revealed.

Yet having a beautiful Aron, even if it contains the word of G-d, is not enough. “And you shall make a Shulchan, a table, out of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide and one and half cubits high” (25:23). Our spiritual life can only be as strong as our material; “if there is no flour there is no Torah”. Rather startlingly, the Torah insists that just outside the Holy of Holies, we are to place a table. On that table, at all times, was to be found 12 loaves of bread. These loaves were to be eaten by the kohanim as they began and ended their weekly rotations in the Temple. It is significant that the descriptions of the ark and the table are adjacent to each other; this serves as a symbol of the crucial link between our spiritual and material needs.

Yet while we should yearn for more and more spirituality, our material desires should be modest. The Kli Yakar, the16th century preacher, notes that the shulchan had a misgeret (a border) surrounding it, symbolizing the limits we must place on our material desires. Misgeret, the Kli Yakar notes, is a derivative of sagur, to close off; indicating that we must, at times, close off our desires. This, for many, is most difficult, as in our world, excesses abound.

This might be easier if we recognize that wealth is a “galgal hachozer baolom ”, that wealth is cyclical. He who is wealthy today may not be tomorrow. And if he remains so throughout his life, it is almost certain that in a few short generations, his descendants will not be so fortunate. This fleeting nature of wealth, the Kli Yakar notes, is reflected in the four golden, but circular, rings attached to the shulchan.

Finding the proper balance in the multiple facets of our life is a lifelong challenge. It is the Menorah, offering light to the world, and whose description immediately follows that of the Aron and Shulchan, that represents this ideal. Its seven distinct branches had to be made of one solid piece of gold. All our activities must emanate from one source and with one goal in mind; to be a contributing member of the “Kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.