Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat, 2nd Adar II 5776, 12th March 2016
I recently caught a rerun of the 1963 movie “Lilies of the Field” with Sidney Poitier, about a black handyman in the southwest who gets roped into building a chapel in the desert for a bunch of nuns who had escaped from East Germany. And I thought about the mishkan, the tabernacle, the building of which we concluded in today’s parsha.
How similar yet how different. Homer Smith, Poitier, wants to do it alone. He designs a simple floor plan (Moshe receives a detailed architectural blueprint from curtains to altars). Homer scrounges some materials and begins to build, by himself. Moshe gives the word and the people begin to bring materials; he appoints two experts to oversee the work and he allows, indeed encourages, the people to help. In Homer’s case, building is slow – until the people show up and force themselves into the building project. They want to it be theirs, too. In the end, both the desert chapel and the tabernacle in the desert are works of pride for the people that reflect unity and cooperation.
Towards the end of the movie, Homer (Poitier) is upset. He wanted something that reflected him – a Herod on a very small scale! Moshe, of course, has no such aspirations – everything is for God and the people. But both in the movie and here, the hero receives an honor. In the movie, Homer gets to place the last bricks on the roof, where he also inscribes his name. In today’s parsha, Moshe is given the honor of putting the finishing touches on the mishkan. The conclusion belongs to him – Homer, Moshe – but the building belongs to the people.
What Homer finally sees, and what Moshe has known all along, is that the desire to participate, and actual participation, create a lasting bond between people and project.
Basically, today’s parsha is a repetition of what was said in the past few weeks, plus a summary of all the work that was done, plus an accounting of exactly how much of each material was used, plus a description of the final touches that Moshe himself put into the building of the tabernacle. So what does it really give us?
The commentators differ about when the instructions for building the tabernacle were given: before the Golden Calf debacle, after it or during the unrest. These instructions take up the whole second half of the book of Shmot. That is a lot of detail. But why?
We saw that the people yearned for a leader, a godhead to lead them. That’s why they insisted on something, anything, to replace the missing Moshe. It is tempting to think that one of the reasons that so many details were given was to focus the people on an edifice that they could identify with their God, so that even if they could not see him, they could see his material representation on the ground and be reminded of his presence (and yes, they needed reminding as often as possible). Perhaps God really is in the details.
Yet why did Moshe have to give such a detailed accounting of all the gold, silver, expensive linens, wool, hides, boards and other materials that were contributed and then used? The rabbis latched onto this point with a vengeance. Their midrashim relate outlandish stories that were circulated in the Israelite camp: that Moshe took the riches for himself. That he ate the choicest morsels of food brought as sacrifices. That he had relations with dozens, hundreds of women.
They’re talking about the Moshe who went up to Sinai twice, for 40 days each time and, we are told, did not eat or drink for 40 days, each time. What would he care about food? This is the Moshe who seems to have kept his distance from his own wife because of his total involvement with God. How can you violate the laws of the Torah with God looking over your shoulder every minute of the day? And this was the Moshe who didn’t want any of the formal trappings of leadership – so what would he do with all of the fancy linens and exquisite materials?
The rabbis were not impugning the honesty of Moshe. They are saying that no matter who we are, certain people will rumor-monger, no matter what we do. And is that not true today?
But overall, the picture that we get from the end of Shemot is a plan of action for the proper conduct of an organization, a society, a country. Consider:
I wish I could say that these guidelines instruct us in our country today. But I can’t. Not even in the religious parties. What we see are groups that feel that everything belongs to them, and the rest be damned. Thus our religion has been appropriated by one sector, the land by another, the economy has been highjacked by a coterie of people who have no shame and no real interest in others.
But hope springs eternal. Purim is coming, where the bad guys get their comeuppance, and then Pesach which is payback time in spades. We will prevail. There is no other option.