by Rabbi Beth Lieberman, ’15
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is one of five parshiot that detail the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), an enduring symbol of our coming of age as a people. It begins when God issues a call to holiness: “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham” and the Israelites respond by pouring their prodigious energies into creating this portable sanctuary. It is a profoundly moving sequence of events, an immensely significant snapshot in time.
The building of the Mishkan was God’s call to the Israelites to step up and co-create a sacred world. But the community of Israelites was composed of many kinds and classes of individuals. Who amongst them is called to co-create with God? All who are so moved. It is a project meant for all levels of Israelite society. Not just the priests, or the chieftains, or those with the greatest means. All have something to contribute, and everyone’s gifts are needed to build a world infused with Divine Presence.
The text details what is to be created and specifies the work needed from skilled artists and craftspeople. Here there is a specific call for the women who are wise of heart: those who spin the yarns, linen, and goat hair that comprises parts of this sanctuary.
The Mishkan was to the Israelites in the desert what the Holy of Holies was to be later on in the life of our people during the time of the Jerusalem Temple. The Holy of Holies within the Temple housed the Foundation Stone (also referred to, in Yerushalmi Pesachim 4:1, as the Weaving Stone).
Rabbi Jill Hammer, a contemporary commentator whose work has brought the history of women within our tradition to light, reminds us that the Temple had sacred weavers, and that those weavers were women. Hammer teaches that in the Tosefta (Tosefta Shekalim 2:6), it reads that “[the women who wove the curtain for the Holy of Holies] had an equal standing in the commerce of the Temple treasury” with the priests who baked the bread (the House of Garmo) and made the incense (the House of Avtinas). (Hammer, The Hebrew Priestess, p.49)
We don’t think of women in the priestly rituals of the Temple, but there are records of them occupying a central place. We can see these sacred weavers as the spiritual descendants of the wise-of-heart weavers of our people’s ancient days, when we first brought the sacred presence to dwell amongst us.