As human beings, can we know precisely what God wants from us? It might seem, from the beginning of this week’s parasha, that we can: “Bring Me gifts. You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is willing. And these are the gifts you shall accept from them” (Exodus 25:2). God then offers a specific list of valuable things: precious metals and stones, rich textiles, animal skins, wood, oils and spices. At the end of the list of contributions, God says, “They will make me a sanctuary, so that I will dwell among them. Exactly how I show you ... so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). What follows is a template — in unparalleled detail — for building this tabernacle. God tells Moses precisely what is expected from the Israelites: why such specificity and detail?
One specific design in the parasha describes curtains that will envelop the ark inside this Sanctuary. The cover of the ark will have two cherubs facing one another, made from one piece of gold, with wings “spread above, shielding the cover [of the ark]” (Exodus 25:20). It is between these cherubs that God’s presence will come to rest. There is to be a tent above the entire Mishkan made from layers of cloth and skins. One might think that one curtain on each side of the ark would be enough. God specifies, however, that there should be five curtains on one side, and five on the other. Another question emerges: Why so much covering?
My film, “Mishkan,” engages each of these questions in a different way. The question of details is addressed through the choreography. All the movement for the piece came from details in the text itself. In other commentaries I have created, I have to imagine details in the text to generate movement. For this parasha, the movements seemed to almost form themselves – similar to Rashi’s commentary on the formation of the cherubim: “Hit (the mass of gold) with a hammer and a mallet at the middle, so that its ends will protrude upwards and come to form the cherubim” (Rashi on 25:18 “Make them by hammering”). The lampstand with its cups and calyxes; the table made of acacia wood, covered completely with gold; wood poles covered with gold and threaded through golden rings. All these details made a physical embodiment of the parasha almost obvious.
“Mishkan/Sanctuary” by Moving Torah. Story continues after the video.
The words speak to the question of covering: Construct an Ark. So carefully. Covering after covering, to protect yourself from face-to-face contact. Layer after layer, curtain after curtain, gold upon wood. Gold pole through gold ring, shimmering so brightly that you couldn’t possibly see through it. To the Face.
Which brings us to ask, “Why so much gold?” and, furthermore, what should we make of the juxtaposition of the gold in this parasha, at the very beginning of Moses’ time on the mountain, with the gold used at the end of Moses’ 40 days days on the mountain, when the Israelites form the golden calf?
Even in the Mishkan, God can dwell with us — and we with God — only through veils and covers. The Israelites, at the foot of the mountain, are even farther away. While Moses is on the mountain, the Israelites can’t hear or experience God. In fact, the Israelites are so far away that they can’t even hear it. So far away that all they catch is a glimpse of gold, and they get not the essence, just the form. So they try to embody it in the face of a calf. Perhaps they get just enough reverberation of what’s happening on the mountain to sense that they are supposed to be doing something with all of that gold. In this case, their distance itself (and the anxiety that accompanies it) leads to their misdirection.
Human constructs — by their nature, distanced from God — will never get it precisely right. Some endeavors fall further from the target than do others. Others, of course, do not start with the premise of creating something holy (or, in more secular language, a common good). But for those of us in a post-Tabernacle world who are striving toward creating a life of purpose, how do we discern between the gold of the Mishkan, and the gold of the calf? Between the need for a building fund to house holy service, and the desire to create an edifice for its own sake? Between a halachic (ritual legal) system that prescribes modesty of my own personhood, or one that prescribes a policing of others’ bodies and paths?
The parasha does give us a hint as to how we might try to determine what God wants from us, even now. In our parasha, each Israelite is commanded to bring these gifts “asher yidvenu libo” (as his/her heart is willing). The Israelites, at the bottom of the mountain, act from fear, not from a place of willing hearts. From the parasha, we can see that it takes both a willing heart and great attention to detail as we strive toward building with holy purpose. We need to discern from our hearts, very carefully and with great humility. We can only hope that as we strive with care, we move in the direction of creating a home, a city, a world in which God will come to dwell.
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