Collective Giving

The beauty of the mishkan lies in the ability of the Israelites to give of themselves in order to create it.

Menorah (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Menorah (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
“THEY SHALL MAKE A mishkan (tabernacle) for me that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) In a text that uses words sparingly and carefully, the copious depictions of the construction of the Tabernacle seem to be an anomaly. Why does the Torah devote almost the entire last 15 chapters of Exodus, with the exception of the story of the Golden Calf, to the details of its construction? Even devotees of Jewish art remain perplexed by the volume of detail given here.
My late friend, Dr. Abe Kanof, a collector of Judaica who created a workshop where artists were commissioned to create modern Judaic works, had a wonderful phrase for these portions. He called them the “interior decor” sections of the Torah and, despite his love of Jewish art, he could not fully grasp the importance of the sheer volume of detail the Torah lavishes on the decor of the Tabernacle.
Artist Tobi Kahn, in an essay accompanying a catalogue of his work, provides one possible answer: “Intrinsic to every commandment is the prospect of hiddur mitzva, of amplifying the commandment’s sacredness with beauty.”
This principle of beautifying the ways in which we perform a mitzva stems from the poetic phrase in Exodus 15:2, “This is my God and I will glorify him.”
According to the medieval commentator Rashi, the Hebrew word for glory, ve’anvehu, is related to roots that mean both naveh (home) and noy (beauty). It seems fitting that a dwelling for God should contain elements of both home and beauty.
Indeed, in Shabbat 133b, the Talmud uses Exodus 15:2 as a proof of the importance of glorification of each of the mitzvot, noting the possibility of enhancing commandments by using a comely etrog or building a more lovely sukka.
Yet I believe that the importance of the details in this portion lies elsewhere. These verses point to a possible conflict between physical space and its contents. Too easily, a physical space can become an end in itself, overtaking the invitation to the deity that is meant to dwell within it.
We need not look much further than the disastrous story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-35), in which a physical representation of divinity is created by the Israelites. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) provides yet another fine example of the conflict between a physical space and the purpose it serves in the story of three rabbis, Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, Rabbi Yossei and Rabbi Shimon, who were discussing the contributions of the Romans to the Land of Israel: “Rabbi Judah began the discussion by saying: How fine are the works of this people (the Romans). They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have constructed baths… Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai answered and said: All that they have made, they have done for themselves. They built marketplaces to put harlots there; they made baths to rejuvenate themselves; they made bridges to levy tolls.” In other words, according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Romans did not build with the proper intent. They built for themselves, for their tolls, bodies and prostitutes, rather than out of any sense of a greater collective good.
Here, then, lies the meaning of this portion. The beauty of the mishkan lies in the ability of the Israelites to give of themselves in order to create it. “Let them take for me a portion, you shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves him.”(Exodus 25:2) The people wanted to give to the construction, their hearts moved them. And the donations were not only monetary. A variety of skilled workers – weavers, woodworkers, goldsmiths, construction workers, designers – were involved in this undertaking.
Sforno, the 16th-century Italian scholar, tells us that the Israelites did not wait to be asked to give; they came before Moses immediately and brought their gifts until there was much more material than was necessary. What could possibly inspire a group of people to give so much more than what was required? Perhaps they contributed because they understood that the design was crucial, not only for its beauty, but, even more importantly, for the process of the “interior design” that humans do in their minds and hearts that enables them to collectively create things of physical beauty.
Unlike the Golden Calf, the mishkan was not built for the people themselves; it was built to house divinity, something greater than themselves. The Tabernacle is thus an inspiration, helping us to recognize the possibilities inherent in a community committed to a lofty mission, in which each individual is valued and a place is made for the skills and accomplishments of each and every member. A true terumah, a collective gift as intended by this portion, can be made only when all givers feel equally part of the story.
When each and every Jew in our communities feels that his or her unique gifts are valued by the community, we will be able to build modern “places of divine dwelling,” their designs infused with values that provide both exterior and interior decor.
Beth Kissileff, a writer and teacher of Jewish and literary texts, is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis.