Jewish Journal

Where the Heart Is

Parashat Pekuday (Exodus 38:21-40:38)

by Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer

Posted on Mar. 9, 2000 at 7:00 pm

Take a minute and build your dream house. What does it look like? How big is it? What do the doorknobs look like? The staircase? How many bedrooms are there? What kinds of flowers are in the yard?

Building, renovating or even just inhabiting a home requires that we pay attention to countless details. This week's Torah portion concludes the architectural and construction designs for another house: the House of worship and meeting for the Israelites in the desert, the Mishkan (Sanctuary). This house, like any other, requires organization of a great many details. And the Torah enumerates virtually them all: It tells us of the construction of the Mishkan itself, plus the design of its altars, utensils, table, the Menorah, the Ark, its curtain and many decorative items.

The Talmud tells of a discussion between the two principle builders of the Mishkan. In articulating God's instructions for the Mishkan, Moses tells its architect, Betzalel, that he should design -- in this order -- "an ark, utensils, and the Sanctuary." Betzalel responds by respectfully suggesting that Moses has got the order wrong. The architect argues that rather, the natural way to proceed would be first to build the building, and then to fill it with the smaller items such as the Ark and the utensils.

Both sides of the argument have merit. Moses prioritizes knowing what goes inside before building the outside; Betzalel emphasizes the need to focus on the walls of the structure before putting something inside of it.

Commentators have puzzled over this story, recognizing not just the literal differences but also the symbolic ones. Is Moses (by prioritizing the Ark) emphasizing the Torah over the rest of Jewish law, while Betzalel does the opposite? Or does Moses believe simply that Torah learning is more important than the location in which it takes place? Or maybe Moses' order emphasizes people's inner, private lives, while Betzalel's highlights the external things, the behaviors we display.

There's something else in the Talmudic story: a distinction between soul and body. Moses' instruction emphasizes the more spiritual things -- as represented by the Ark housing the Torah, our ethical instruction manual. Betzalel, however, emphasizes the physical. He is fixated on buildings. For Moses' soul, we have Betzalel's body.

Jewish prayer voices this distinction. Traditionally, upon arising in the morning, some of the first words a Jew speaks are those of a blessing, thanking God for the healthy functioning of the body. Moments later, however, there is another blessing, this one acknowledging the existence of a soul -- pure, God-given and as intangible as breath itself &'173; to go with that body.

Which one is more important? Which more central? Judaism is neither all physical nor all spiritual. We constantly use the physical as a means to something else. That is what a great deal of Jewish life is about. We light the Shabbat candles in order to set a mood of peace and love. We cover our heads so that we might remind ourselves of the omnipresence of the divine, even in moments God might easily be forgotten. We put our hands to work, to reach out to assist others, leave the world more beautiful than we found it, or clench our fists against evil.

And we build a building, not for the sake of having a stunning edifice, but so that we might find within its walls more opportunities for doing God's work on earth.

So who is right, Moses or Betzalel? In the end, it is Moses who accedes to the wishes of his colleague. The Torah tells us that Betzalel, a master craftsman, is also blessed with a "wise heart." It is by using his hands -- his physical, bodily existence -- that he exhibits wisdom.

In the everyday work of creating our own homes, we can emulate the Torah's master architect -- by building spaces that constantly imbue our lives with holiness. With the works of our hands, in every little detail, we bring a spark of the divine into earthly life.

Shawn Fields-Meyer, of Los Angeles, is rabbi at Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is an instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

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