Hashem commands Moshe to build a Mishkan (Sanctuary) and supplies him with detailed instructions. The Jewish People are asked to contribute precious metals and stones, fabrics, skins, oil and spices. In the Mishkan's outer courtyard there is an Altar for the burnt offerings and a Laver for washing. The Tent of Meeting is divided by a curtain into two chambers. The outer chamber is accessible only to the Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon. This contains the Table of showbreads, the Menorah, and the Golden Altar for incense. Entrance to the innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies, was permitted only for the Kohen Gadol, and only once a year, on Yom Kippur. Here is the Ark that held the Ten Commandments inscribed on the two tablets of stone which Hashem gave to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai. All of the utensils and vessels, as well as the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, are described in great detail.
The Mosquito’s Bite
“They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length…” (25:10)
The creation of the Panama Canal must rank as one of the greatest engineering achievements of the past two centuries. Apart from the unbelievable amounts of earth that had to be moved, disease was a major factor in the difficulty of building the Canal. The first attempt to construct a canal through what was then Colombia's province of Panama began on January 1, 1881. The project was inspired by the diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was able to raise considerable funds in France as a result of the huge profits generated by his successful construction of the Suez Canal. Although the Panama Canal needed to be only 40 percent as long as the Suez Canal, it was much more of an engineering challenge due to the combination of tropical rain forests, debilitating climate, the need for canal locks and the lack of any ancient route to follow.
Lesseps wanted a sea-level canal (like the Suez), but he visited the site only a few times, during the dry season which lasts only four months of the year. His men were totally unprepared for the rainy season, during which the Chagres River, where the Canal started, became a raging torrent, rising up to 10 m (35 ft). The dense jungle was alive with venomous snakes, insects and spiders, but the worst challenges were yellow fever, malaria and other tropical diseases, which killed thousands of workers. By 1884, the death rate was over 200 per month. Public Health measures were ineffective because the role of the mosquito as a disease vector was then unknown.
The United States took over the project when the French pulled out and Colonel William C. Gorgas was appointed chief sanitation officer of the canal construction project in 1904. Gorgas implemented a range of measures to minimize the spread of deadly diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria, which had recently been shown to be mosquito-borne following the work of Dr. Carlos Finlay and Dr. Walter Reed. Despite opposition from the commission (one member said his ideas were ‘barmy’), Gorgas persisted, and after two years of extensive work, the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated. Even after all that effort, about 5,600 workers died of disease and accidents during the US construction phase of the Canal.
As David McCullough relates in The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914:
"In mid-September, while placing mosquitoes on patients in a fever ward, Lazear saw a free mosquito of undetermined species land on his hand and he purposefully allowed the insect to take its feed of blood. Five days later Lazear had what Gorgas described as one of the most violent cases of yellow fever he had ever attended. On September 25, the day Lazear died, he was in such wild delirium that it took two men to hold him in bed.
“Convinced now of the truth of Finlay’s theory, Reed pressed on with further experiments proving conclusively that Stegomyia fasciata was the carrier, and that neither filth nor “fomites,” the term used for the soiled clothes or bedding of yellow-fever patients, had anything whatever to do with spreading the disease.
“For twenty nights, as part of one experiment, a doctor and three volunteer soldiers, confined to a one-room shack, slept in the soiled pajamas of yellow-fever patients, on beds reeking of black vomit and other excreta; and for all the discomfort of the experience, none of them suffered the least sign of illness."
The physical world can be a bewildering place. It’s easy for us to smile at the ignorance of those who found the concept of a mosquito as a bearer of disease ‘barmy.’ But how much more are the laws of the spiritual unknown! And moreover, they are unknowable. How can you see that a Jew who brazenly turns on a light on Shabbat ‘burns’ much more than the filament of the bulb?
“They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length…”
This week’s Torah portion contains precise physical dimensions that allow us to enter a spiritual world. Without those precise formulas, such as the formula of Shabbat or tefillin, we would have no idea how to enter these worlds. And our attempts to do so might be more dangerous than a mosquito’s bite.