Parshat Pekudei describes the construction of the structure of the Mishkan (40:17-19): “And it was in the first month, in the second year, on the first of the month, that the Mishkan was erected. Moshe erected the Mishkan, and he fastened its sockets and set its boards and inserted its bars and erected its pillars. He spread the tent over the Mishkan and set the covering of the tent over it, as God commanded Moshe.”
Chazal teach us that “Moshe erected the Mishkan” refers to the lower curtains. As it is stated in Shabbat 28a: “Only the Mishkan itself is called Mishkan; the beams are not called Mishkan.” Accordingly, the word Mishkan does not refer to the beams of the Mishkan, but rather to the lower curtains.
Rashi interprets the words “he spread the tent” to refer to the goat-hair covering the lower curtain. We see from this that the lower curtains were already in place. We can now better understand the order in which the Mishkan was constructed. The lower curtains were first spread, then the beams were put together, and finally the goat-hair covering was placed on. This can be confirmed by Seforno’s comments on Pasuk 18: “The ten skillfully woven curtains called Mishkan were erected before the beams.”
The Sefer Shem Mishmuel (rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski) comments on how remarkable it is that the curtains were spread before the supports were placed underneath. This could have only been possible if the people were holding up the curtains while the beams were placed underneath, or if this occurred through a miracle! He proceeds to ask why we have to go through this difficult and complicated process. Would it not have been much easier and more convenient had the beams been placed before the curtains?
He answers based on the idea that the Mishkan was meant to be a place where the Shechinah rested, as can easily be proven from the fact that the word “Mishkan” itself means a “resting place.” Additionally, when the idea of a Mishkan is first introduced by the Torah, the Pesukim state: “Make a sanctuary for Me, and I shall dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). This means that everything having to do with the Mishkan was done with the goal of bringing the Shechinah down to Earth. All of the vessels were created with the goal of instilling the presence of Hashem within them. This is similar to the connection between a person and his Neshamah. Just as the body is a means of transportation for the soul in this world, the Mishkan was a place that was meant to make the presence of Hashem apparent on earth.
After the Chet HaEgel, Bnei Yisrael were spiritually impure and felt disconnected from Hashem. Hashem gave us the Mishkan to take us out of that spiritual impurity. Once the Mishkan was built, they were presented with a model on how to connect with Hashem. Their goal became to be like the vessels of the Mishkan, to bring the Shechinah down to earth.
This incident of building the Mishkan and becoming closer to Hashem is symbolized by the order in which the Mishkan was built. The same people who had become spiritually impure from the Chet HaEgel were given the Mishkan before they were at a sufficient level of Taharah to support the spiritual holiness represented by the Mishkan. Just as the supports were only placed under the curtains after they had been place, hence the spiritual uplift of the Mishkan had been placed on Bnei Yisrael before the people could reach the level that they had been given by God.
This is similar to the development of Bnei Yisrael after being taken out of Egypt. While enslaved, Bnei Yisrael had sunk to their lowest level of Tumah. Had they been in Egypt much longer, they would have been unable to be redeemed by Hashem. Even though Bnei Yisrael were not worthy of a miraculous salvation, Hashem redeemed them because of what they were to accomplish in the future - the acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai nearly two months later. So Hashem took them of Egypt on a higher level then they were on, with the confidence that they could ‘lay down the supports’ within the seven upcoming weeks to Har Sinai.