If King Solomon, who built a magnificent temple to God could say, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” – what should WE say about a simple tabernacle, with walls of cloth (albeit expensive cloth), that could be dismantled and transported from one spot to another in the desert? Didn’t the Israelites realize the absurdity of such a modest home for the God of the heavens and the earth?
Suppose they did realize the absurdity. But they were in the desert, living from the hand of God to the mouth of the Israelites for just about everything other than sand: water, food, direction, protection. And here comes Moshe, who says if any of you feel like it, we’re taking up a collection for building a tabernacle to the God who took you out of Egypt, at His request.
Who wouldn’t give? Especially if we accept that the Torah’s chronology is flexible and that the tabernacle laws were given after the golden calf debacle (which we will read about in two weeks’ time). After such a disgrace – creating and worshipping a golden image right after they had been specifically forbidden to do so – who would dare withhold gold, silver, fancy cloths and other fineries from a national project for God?
But perhaps the people truly felt thankful. Perhaps the Israelites felt like a child who doesn’t know what he can give his favorite uncle as a gift.
Professor Avigdor Shinan brings a startling idea from the medrash about the opening sentence. Instead of reading “and they shall take a contribution for me,” that is for God or the mishkan, they interpret the word “take” as to “buy,” and “for me” becomes “me. So the sentence reads: “they will buy me as a contribution.” In other words, God is putting himself up for sale and asking the Israelites to buy him.
According to Shinan and the medrash, God says ‘I sold you my Torah, so it’s like I was sold with it.’ The giving of the Torah and adherence to it validates the author of the Torah and provides proof of His existence. If people don’t learn, uphold and adhere to the Torah and its mitzvoth, it’s as though it doesn’t exist. And the medrash concludes, just as a king with no subjects to obey his commands is not a king, the kingdom of the King of Kings depends on the consent of flesh and blood to accept His authority and purchase His most precious item, the Torah.
Another explanation given for why the people were so happy to contribute is that it gave them a feeling of worth. We are not complete shnorrers, they were saying, living off God’s amazing grace. We give back. We want to give back. We are willing to give and work – just tell us what you want!
This important lesson is often overlooked today. Making a generalization that certainly does not apply to everyone, many children today believe that everything is coming to them and that they don’t have to think about others. Thinking about others is in fact quite difficult when you are sunk deep in your smartphone or computer and most of your friends are people you have rarely if ever met outside the screen.
So we see that building the tabernacle has a few purposes. It gives dignity to the people by making them givers instead of takers, and it helps to strengthen ties with others.
Working on the tabernacle is positive for a third practical reason as well. The work will take their minds off their location, in the desert. When you are deep in a specific job or project, everything else disappears.
The famous gorilla experiment proves this. A bunch of students were told to pass a basketball around and to keep count of the number of passes. While they were doing it, a man dressed in a gorilla outfit went right through their circle and almost none of those involved noticed him.
Even more startling is that this same experiment was conducted on a stage in a hall, in front of hundreds of spectators, and not more than 10 percent of the AUDIENCE saw the gorilla cross the stage!
And in our terms. Put a man in front of a football or basketball game on TV and his wife can ask for – and get – anything she wants because he doesn’t really hear or see her. He is in the game.
We are all selectively attentive. Children and teenagers are notoriously deaf – to what adults say. Other things they hear very well. We do the same thing with the election campaign propaganda. We hear what our party has to say but not the others. That which we don’t care about, are like the gorilla.
For the Israelites in the desert, the tabernacle was a new project which gave them something to do, a chance to give thanks for what they had received, and the dignity inherent in being a giver instead of a taker.
From the people’s response, this would seem to have been one of the most joyous and productive periods during the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert.
Would that today’s mishkan, the synagogue, continue to be a place that attracts and provides meaning to the children of Israel, now and in the future.