Torah Reading for the Week of March 3-9, 2013
“Hiddur Mitzvah – Holiness Beyond Ceremonial Objects”
By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ‘03
Recently someone came to our synagogue gift shop and said, “I want to buy a mezuzah for a Jewish friend for their new home. Rabbi, would you bless it for me?” I complimented them on their choice of a beautiful painted wooden mezuzah case, made sure they also had acquired the kosher parchment scroll to go inside, and then explained that we don’t bless objects, but rather the mitzvah, the commandment, the action, the holy service in which that ceremonial object is used. To sanctify Shabbat and usher in holy days we make a blessing over the wine, not of the wine; a blessing over the candles, not the candles themselves. I said that I would be happy to come to the house and arrange a Hanukkat Ha-bayyit, a home dedication, at which we would offer blessings, and affix the mezuzah to the doorpost.
It is with this concept in mind that we read this week’s double portion Vayakhel and Pikudei, both dealing with gathering to celebrate the completion of the construction of the Mishkan – Tabernacle – in the wilderness by the Children of Israel, echoing the instructions given in previous Torah portions Terumah and Tetzaveh. The work was accomplished by skilled workers under the inspired artistic instruction of Betzalel, the first acknowledged artist, as we read, “G-d… endowed him with a divine spirit of skill… in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs… and to give directions” (Exodus 35:30-34), enabling him to turn Moses’ blueprint dictated by the Holy One into concrete architecture, and ceremonial objects in precious metals for worship.
Vayakhel has as its root the letters kuf-hey-lamed giving rise to related words such as “gathering together,” “congregation,” community,” and “chorus.” So this retelling of the completion of the Mishkan is no mere listing of a giant building project with all its component parts completed and accounted for. Rather, this is a recounting of the joyous moment of unification when intention was carried through so that the finished product could be sanctified and used for its holy purpose as the people gave their “freewill offering to G-d” (Exodus 35:29).
This is like when we gather together for worship on Shabbat and holy days, and bring out our silver candlesticks to be lit at the onset of Shabbat, as we look around at the ark holding the Torah scrolls, with the Ner Tamid – Eternal Light – glowing above it. All of the ceremonial objects and the very structure itself become our version of the Mishkan; and the contributions of money, time, planning, and volunteer efforts are very much like the planks, posts, poles and generously donated and crafted contributions of our ancestors. At our services, we use our ceremonial objects, and we sit in sacred space, but the point is to do the inspired and holy journeying we do together through the prayers, the offerings of our hearts, as our ancestors did with the sacrifices on the altar.
“Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meetings. The Israelites did so; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did…. And Moses blessed them” (Exodus 39:30-31, and 39:43). The blessing, the ceremonies of setting up the Tabernacle, the ark, the altar, the menorah, etc., with attention to anointing and dedicating each part… these are the powerful, culminating actions that lead to the Cloud of Glory, G-d’s presence, filling the Tabernacle!
During my seven years as Museum Educator at the Skirball Museum in the 1980’s, we created many exhibits and honored artists who crafted a wide range of ceremonial objects to enhance worship through Hiddur Mitzvah, the enhancement of carrying out the commandments with beautiful objects and devoted intention. We made sure to communicate the holy uses of these objects in synagogues and homes, to make Jewish culture come alive with these objects, but never lose sight of their ultimate purpose beyond their own beauty.
May we continue to build the Mishkan as in ancient times, but with the deep understanding that it is not in the objects or projects themselves that the holiness resides, but rather in the opportunity to focus our attention, our prayers, our offerings – the essence of creating holy space. Remember “If you make me a holy space I will dwell among you, within you” from Terumah (Exodus 25:8). That vital instruction is still playing out here. It is our care, our intention, our devotion, our blessings to carry out mitzvot that make these beautiful, artistically designed ceremonial objects valuable and important.
Hazak hazak v’nit-hazek. May we be strong and strengthen each other as we end the reading of the Book of Exodus and continue on our sacred journey.