The Logic of Things and the Work of Our Hands

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Stephen Belsky

It’s clear why G-d wanted us to have a mishkan – it’s right there towards the end of Parashat Tetsavveh (Shemot 29:45-46):

So I will dwell within the Israelites and be their Gd.  They will know that I am Hashem, their Gd, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that I may dwell within them; I am Hashem, their Gd.

But the question of the week is – why did Gd want us to build a mishkan? After all, it could have just fallen from heaven, like the מן and the quail that sustained our ancestors in the Wilderness; or as Rashi imagines the Third Temple in his commentary on the Talmud, “built by the hands of Heaven”.  So why do we have to build it?

To be honest, we had the same question last week.  And two weeks before that.  And yet another week back, as well.  Four parshahs – full of lists, materials, and measurements, describing clothes, structures, fixtures, and tools, in sometimes painful and repetitive detail.  And now that we’ve reached the end of the shopping list, the final page of the blueprints, the question remains – Why did Gd want us to build a משכן?

Perhaps the answers lies in the “us”, the builders. What do we know about the ones who did the actual building?

A few chapters ago, Gd instructed Moshe, “You – speak to all the wise-hearted [minded] whose heart [mind] I have filled with the spirit of wisdom.”  According to the midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭov, the word “all” means that both men and women were included.  But the most salient characteristic, repeated here in Gd’s instructions to Moshe, is that they must be wise.

Does that mean that Moshe got philosophers, gurus, and scholars to do all the sawing, weaving, and engraving?  Maybe… but we’ll touch on that later.

First, we need to take a look at wisdom, at חכמה.  What is Wisdom, besides a statistic on your Dungeons & Dragons character sheet?  In his introduction to the Da‘at Miḳra’ commentary on Sefer Mishley, Israeli educator Yehuda Ḳil explains that Tanakh refers to four types of חכמה.

One we can call Smarts.  Intellect.  This is the חכמה that we are told King Solomon was blessed with, which he used to govern Israel.

Another is the Wisdom of Ethics and Morality; of Torah; the teachings that guide us to live lives of meaning, kindness, and justice, rooted in the love and awe of Gd.

A third type of Ḥokhma is what the books of Mishley and Iyyov call Gd’s Wisdom – the Divine plans and calculations that Gd uses to create and oversee the universe.

The last type of Wisdom is Skills – practical competence with tools and technology. The kind of חכמה you need to saw a beam straight; to dye wool the proper shade of blue with Murex sea-snail extract; to beat gold from a lump of metal into a candelabrum.  Tanakh first mentions this fourth type of wisdom here, by the builders of the mishkan: “All those of wise mind, which Gd filled with a spirit of wisdom.”

Why are Smarts and Ethics not enough?  Why are intellectual achievement and moral refinement insufficient to commune with the Divine and connect to the Wisdom that preceded creation?  Why was this fourth type of wisdom so essential?  Why get down and dirty with our hands in the sawdust, our faces soot-streaked from the forge, our clothes splattered with the blood of animals and the mucus of snails?

In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, philosopher, electrician, and motorcycle mechanic Dr Matthew Crawford explores the value of artisanship, of craft, of the trades – all what we would call the חכמה of the builders of the mishkan – and he reveals a paradox in the relationship between the objects we make, we create, we repair; and our selves who, in the terminology of the Torah, design the מחשבותand perform the מלאכה.

On the one hand, he quotes the words of Hannah Arendt:

The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.

I can make ḳiddush on a cup passed down for generations.  You can build a space probe and launch it to the moon, like the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet that recently lifted off from Cape Canaveral; or to farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond.  We can appreciate art painted on the walls of caves by Neanderthals, 65,000 years ago.  The mishkan itself was built, assembled, disassembled, and reassembled, over and over again, and lasted for hundreds of years.

It’s an awe-inspiring power – I may be a limited human being, but my work can transform the world!

Where there were tree trunks, now there are קרשים, structural beams.  Where there were animal skins, now there are יריעות, tenting sheets.  Where there was gold and silver, there are now altars and tables and sacrificial tools.  The act of Creation is Godly.  “You have made [us] but little less than the divine”, wrote King David in Tehillim.  Humanity is so close to Divinity.

And yet, on the other hand, Dr Crawford continues:

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.  A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs.  At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption… Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things… practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on

If I’m a plumber, there is a single rubric by which my work can be evaluated – Does the toilet flush?  If I’m a mechanic, there is one way to know whether I’ve succeeded or failed – Does the car run?  And if I’m a volunteer in the great and holy national project of עם ישראלcalled “building the mishkan”, and I’m hammering out the כיור, the washbasin, or weaving the מגבעות, the turbans, or engraving the precious stones, or sawing the wall beams – I can’t do whatever I want with it; I have to submit to the design, to the blueprints, given by Gd through Moshe.  I have all the power, but I’m not in charge.  There’s a standard, a plan, an expectation; there are specs that must be fulfilled.

And so, through this worker’s paradox, this artisan’s dialectic – as our ancestors built the mishkan, בני ישראל came closer to Gd through והלכת בדרכיו, walking in Gd’s ways.  Just as Gd  creates and recreates the universe, so too do we make and remake the world Gd gave us.

And in those very same moments, with every swing of the hammer, the Israelites came closer to Gd also in humility, in recognizing that for all our powers, we don’t run the world.  There are rules for what the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to look like, inside and out; and there are rules for how we worship our Creator and for how we treat our fellow human beings.  As it says in both Tehillim and Mishley – the beginning of all חכמה is respect for Gd.

This week in parashat Peḳudey, we read how when the project is finished, and the Tabernacle, its fixtures, its tools, and the כהנים‘s clothes are all ready, Moshe blesses בני ישראל.  The Torah doesn’t tell us what he said, but according to Rabbi Me’ir as quoted in a number of midrashim, Moshe blessed the people, “May it be Gd’s will that the work of your hands be infused with the Divine presence.”  And then בני ישראל responded to the blessing with the words of Tehillim 90:17, just as we say almost every Saturday Night, as we leave that alternate dimension called Shabbat, and reënter the world of work, of מלאכה, of creative labor: “May the pleasantness of the Lord our Gd be upon us, when Gd establishes the work of our hands upon our efforts; oh Gd, establish it – the work of our hands!”

Rabbi Stephen Belsky (SBM 2012), a native New Yorker and a graduate of Pardes and YCT, currently lives in Suburban Detroit, where he teaches torah, builds sukkot, and works as a manufacturing manager and safety coördinator for a car wash supplies company.

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