Notes from the inner sanctuary

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10.

I’d like to challenge you to a little quiz. Which narrative in the Torah gets the most coverage? To be more specific, which narrative has the most verses devoted to it? Here are the obvious contenders:

The Abraham saga
The Joseph saga
The Exodus story, from slave to Reed Sea
The Revelation at Sinai
The description of the different kinds of sacrifices

So, think about your answer, and now consider this startling fact: none of these narratives is the correct answer (although they would be ordered, longest to shortest: Exodus, Abraham, Joseph, sacrifices, Sinai).

The correct answer is: the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the making of the sacred objects used in the Mishkan. (That’s last week’s and this week’s Torah portions.)

I would like to propose a startling possibility that might emerge from this startling fact: the real estate that the Mishkan story takes up in the Torah reflects its status as the most important story in the Torah.

Stepping back from the actual text we might postulate that creating sacred space — a body, a building, a land — is what allows all the rest of our story to survive, and to shape and reshape us. Without a physical sacred space we are not likely to create an enduring theological space.

But let’s return to the text. The Torah says little about the meaning or importance of sacred spaces, but lots about how to create the specific objects that will populate that space. Why do we get such a specific do-it-yourself description of the Mishkan and its objects?

Perhaps what the Torah is telling us is that when the human spirit is best channeled, it is channeled into creative endeavors, into creating architecture and fine objects, into creating beauty. And from “beauty,” the door opens into literature, art, music, math, humanities, science. Perhaps the Torah is providing us with a hierarchy of honorable work, beginning with art and architecture.

Here is some advice if it is ever your turn to talk about this Torah portion and find a lesson in it.

Don’t say something like, “This is the most boring portion in the Torah.” I’ve heard a number of rabbis say that (and I’ve watched my wife, an art historian, walk out on every one of them). Blasphemy! With those few words they have dismissed arts and crafts, design, architecture, all sorts of creative endeavor, and community commitment as topics that lack any value and interest.

Rather, take this as an opportunity to showcase some of the objects in your synagogue that are modern interpretations of what we read about in this Torah portion and the previous one. It’s also an opportunity to enlist the creative people in your congregation to beautify it. And perhaps most importantly, how often do you get to promote the creative spirit in your community? Art is holy work and it deserves the highest honor.

Stephen Berer is education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase.

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