Posted By The Stash

Once again we reach the lengthy account of the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and we are compelled again to consider why the Torah devotes a very large amount of Sefer Shmot to elaborate on the detail of a temporary building that will be eclipsed by the Temple. The classic commentators clash over the reasons for the Tabernacle’s necessity: some see it as an atonement for the Golden Calf, while others see it as a necessary dose of corporeality for a nation still attached to idol worship who required “hands on” worship of an Invisible and Unknowable God.

But another explanation beckons. Nechama Leibowitz has famously shown the alignment of the account of the Tabernacle’s construction with the Creation story. But the original humans of Creation barely existed for more than a few hours on the sixth day of Creation before they were overtaken by temptation and ate the fruit of the Forbidden Tree. Adam’s punishment was “to till the soil from which you were taken, for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” At first blush, this verse reflects the Bible’s jaundiced view of the farmer compared to the shepherd. The Biblical image of the farmer never quite loses the taint of Cain.

Yet, by the early 18th century, a Chassidic commentary observed: “Adam was exiled to become a farmer so that he could plant wheat, watch it grow while he prayed that there would be sufficient rain, harvest and thresh it, mill it into flour, bake it and then eat it after blessing it—only then would he realize how greatly he was diminished from Adam HaRishon, the first Man created with the very breath of the Holy One.” Here we see a new idea: the spiritual redemptiveness of manual toil. By late 19th century, Jewish nationalists and especially Socialists such as Gordon and Borochov wrote of the value of manual work and the importance of relying on Jewish labour to build a Jewish land. The Gordonian eschewing of native Palestinian labour in favour of unskilled but willing members of the Second and Third Aliyot between 1905 and 1914 built the foundation of the Jewish state of today.

Seen in this light, the specialized labour required for the building of the Temple assumes a new importance. All the material was donated, and those blessed with the talent for artisanship could then come forward to create the building and its appurtenances. One can well imagine the redemptive power of a skill once deployed in shaping stone for a Pharaonic pyramid now carefully crafting a golden pole for carrying a vital component of the Tabernacle. It was not by chance that the words “Holy to the L-rd” were engraved on the High Priest’s breastplate—the holiness came from the use of G-d given artistic talents in holy service. The Jews may be the People of the Book, but skilled labour used in a sacred cause is every bit as vital—if not more so—than “book smartness.”

The Intelligent Jew builds enduring Jewish lifestyle by combining book learning and hands-on practice. We become committed Jews by acting Jewishly, physically taking part in Jewish ceremonies and rituals. Sociology has underscored the importance of the words uttered at Sinai: ‘we will DO and we will listen.” Jews who DO Jewish tend to become deeply conscious of our religious rhythms. Those who simply learn academically become the equivalent of a traveler with a Fodor’s guide—they stand out and only see what the book tells them is important. Religion that will be transmitted to the next generation is about emotional involvement. Certainly fluent reading helps one pray, but only doing it brings one to the point where the words, the rhythm, the music, and the soul all fuse. May we be blessed with the power to learn by doing what so many of us have spent so much time learning through study.

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