March 18, 2009
Work of Your Hands
When every last acacia-wood board had been fashioned, every last curtain woven and every single vessel of gold or copper produced, Moshe stood in awe of the people’s accomplishment. “And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it! As the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it” (Exodus 39:43). After so many months of effort, the components of the Tabernacle were now complete. It was time for celebration.
Or was it? The people all actually knew in their hearts that in an essential way, the Tabernacle was still very far from being complete. Thus far, they had merely completed the items that would form the shell of a Tabernacle. The essence of it, the component that would render their project a success, was not only still absent, but was outside of their ability to produce. The skeptics and the scoffers among the people were still confident in their opinion. For weeks they had been challenging their fellow Israelites saying, “Do you seriously think that the Divine Presence will rest on the work of [Moshe] the son of Amram?” (Exodus Rabba 52:2). Whether or not the Divine Presence would indeed manifest upon and within the objects they had fashioned was still an open question. It was also the only question that really mattered.
To fully appreciate how high the stakes were, it’s necessary to realize that the scoffers were not merely challenging Moshe’s particular abilities as a spiritual architect. They were challenging the very premise of the entire religious endeavor, namely that human beings can produce works that matter to God. They were ultimately ridiculing the whole notion that the institutions we build, the deeds we perform or the families we raise can serve as toeholds for the Divine Presence in this world. Anything created by human hands, the scoffers believed, was too fleeting, too momentary, just plain too small to capture the interest of God. And any human belief to the contrary was the product of the most grandiose of self-delusions.
Firm in his faith, Moshe now blessed the people. According to the Midrash, he said to them, “May it be God’s will that He rest His presence on the works of your hands. May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.”
Moshe engaged his critics’ argument directly. Soon, when the component pieces of the Tabernacle would be put together and the Tablets of the Law would lie in the ark in the Holy of Holies, the dispute would be settled. Soon, the cloud of God’s glory would descend, and His voice would be heard. Meanwhile though, Moshe prayed, and the nation waited and hoped.
Against the backdrop of the skepticism that attended that building of the Tabernacle, we can appreciate in a new light God’s command that we build it. “They shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst” was not merely a directive to that one particular generation that was journeying through the Sinai Desert. It was God’s fundamental and timeless assertion that things like this are indeed possible. That despite the vastness that separates God and humankind, the works of mortals can serve as a fitting throne for the presence of God. And not only that, but it is God himself who desires to be thus enthroned. “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who took them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” As Nachmanidies comments on this verse, the dwelling of the Divine Presence among Israel is not only the response to our need; it is the response to God’s need, as well.
Our Sages held up the building of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all human labor. It is the metaphor that we are to bring to all of our creative endeavors, and most specifically, to the places where we do our work. Each time we make a workplace decision to value integrity over the bottom line, we build a tabernacle for God. Whenever, through our work, we extend the kind of love we wish for ourselves to a client, or an employee, or a co-worker, we cause God’s presence to become manifest. When in the course of our work we grant the benefit of the doubt, vanquish anger and strive to speak the whole truth, we satisfy God’s need to dwell among His creations.
Moshe’s prayer was, as we know, soon answered. And the Children of Israel learned a lesson for the ages. It is of course not coincidental that our very first prayer of the workweek — the one we recite even before Havdalah — is the very same: “May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.” May our workplace be a dwelling place for God. l
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.