I’m Building a Cathedral – Vayakhel 5771

There once was a traveler who journeyed all over the globe in search of wisdom and enlightenment. In the midst of one French village, he came upon a great deal of noise, dust, and commotion. He could see that a great building project was underway.

He approached the nearest laborer and asked, “Excuse me, I’m not from this village. May I ask what you are doing?” The laborer replied curtly, “Can’t you see? I’m a stonemason. I’m making bricks.”

The traveler approached a second laborer and asked the same question. He replied, “Can’t you see? I’m a woodcarver. I’m carving benches.”

He next went to a third laborer and repeated his question. “I’m a glassmaker. I am putting together panes of glass to make a window.”

The traveler then approached an old lady in tattered clothing who was sweeping up shards of stone, woodchips, and broken glass. He asked her, somewhat hesitantly, “What are you doing?” With a broad smile and a gleam in her eye, the woman stopped her sweeping, gazed up, and proudly said: “Can’t you see? I’m building a cathedral for God.”

This story teaches that even though our individual actions may seem to be inconsequential, as simple perhaps as sweeping up the floor, our involvement in a bigger story, and a bigger purpose, has the potential to make those actions meaningful. The old lady’s ability to see that bigger story is what makes it possible for her to take pride in her involvement in building a cathedral.

There is a similar lesson to be found in the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, once it is inaugurated, serves several functions. It is where Moses goes to communicate with God. It is where God causes the Divine Presence to dwell in the sight of the Israelites. And it is also the place where Aaron the High Priest and his sons performed the sacrificial rituals on behalf of the nation.

We might be tempted to look back at the sacrificial system and see signs of elitism. That a priestly class, passed down from father to son, alone was permitted to perform the holy functions. And was entitled to receive certain benefits as well.

But there are ways in which every Israelite is involved in the Tabernacle and the priestly service. First of all, the materials for building everything are donated by the people. But not in the way that we might expect for a public works project like this one. There is no bond issued, or temporary sales tax increase. As we read this morning in Parshat Vayakhel, Moses puts the call out for “everyone whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 35:5) to bring gold, silver, precious metals, acacia wood, skins, spices, and all of the other materials that make up the mishkan.

Making it voluntary allows every member of the nation to put his or her heart into the Tabernacle. I can just imagine an Israelite walking by the finished product and thinking proudly “I donated the wool that is in those curtains.” Or, “it was my acacia wood that helped make the poles that hold up the tent.”

To build the mishkan, Moses brings in everyone with special skills, men and women. The parshah describes them as people who are chakham lev asher natan adonai chokhmah b’libo – wise of heart, whom God has endowed with skill.

These workers knew, as they were weaving cloth, hammering out gold, and sanding tent poles, that without their efforts, the mishkan could not be built, the Priests could not be ordained. Without them, the Tabernacle would not serve its purpose. I wonder, if a traveller had asked them what they were doing, how they would have answered. Perhaps someone would have said, “I am weaving this thread into cloth,” or “I am placing this precious stone in its setting.” But then again, he might have said “I am building a house for God to dwell among us.”

And although the Torah does not mention it, I bet there was an old lady out there in the wilderness whose job was to clean up the bits of cloth, and dust, and spilled paint. I bet she was enormously honored and proud to be involved in such a holy project.

The Tabernacle for our ancestors in the wilderness, just like the Cathedral for the French villagers, was God’s place on earth. It was where the people looked for hope and inspiration. To build such a place, it was necessary for the people that it served to feel involved in it. To feel that it represented them, that they had a stake in its building, and thus a stake in the mission that it was built to serve.

Let’s come back to the idea of what the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, represented. It was God’s place on earth, where the heavens and earth came together. It was the locus point where God’s immanent and transcendent nature came together. But there is another notion as well that states that the entire world is God’s place. A few weeks ago, I asked our religious school students about the meaning of the mem line in the Ashrei:

מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל עוֹלָמִים, וּמֶמְשַׁלְתְּךָ בְּכָל דֹר וָדֹר:

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your reign is for all generations.

“Where is God’s kingdom?” I asked. To which a fourth grader replied, “It’s all around us.”

To recognize this idea, that the entire world is God’s kingdom and is filled with the Divine Presence, is one of the major goals of Jewish prayer. It is a theme that can be found throughout the siddur, not just in the Ashrei. It is the reason why we recite blessings before eating food. It’s why we wear kippot. As Jews, we are constantly reminded that there is a vision of what the world ought to be like. It is a vision that we share with each other, with generations of Jews who have come before us, and with God. The Torah is our guide to making that vision a reality.

And so, each day when we set out on our tasks, we too are laborers building a cathedral to house the Divine Presence. Our goal is to make sure that the cathedral is one that is worthy of God. So what are the tasks that must be done to build a suitable dwelling-place?

We call them mitzvot. And they encompass every aspect of our lives. They tell us that we have a duty to build a just society, and how to do so. They tell us to conduct our business honestly, to support others who are experiencing difficulties, to live our lives in communities, to respect the members of our families, to make time sacred through by observing Shabbat and holidays. These are the tasks that we perform, as Jews, that contribute to preparing a world in which the shechinah can reside.

Each contribution to the building of the Tabernacle was valued. So too is each task that we perform, each mitzvah.

But doesn’t that seem a bit idealistic?

Life is busy. We rush, and rarely seem to have the time to pause and reflect. We live in a self-oriented world, where success and achievement is measured by an individual’s accomplishment, rather than a group’s. We tend not to take pride in other people’s achievements. We tend to not feel that our individual actions matter to the world. Modern society does not especially value minuscule contributions. The person who sweeps up the mess is replaceable.

A midrash teaches that the artisans who built the mishkan themselves learned their skills from no human teacher. The knowledge of their craft was planted in their hearts directly from God. If that was the case, then even the smallest little contribution would have been abundantly significant.

Is there anything in our lives that is so inspiring as building the mishkan? Do we feel that God is instilling in us a ruach chochmah, a spirit of wisdom, to engage in a holy task? What if we were so excited by an idea that we could see our involvement in its pursuit, even if it seemed insignificant, as profoundly meaningful?

When we go to work, do we think to ourselves, “I am making the world better”? When we schlep our kids to school, do we pause to consider, “I am helping make this child into a moral, responsible human being”? When we smile genuinely to another person, do we think “I could be lifting this person’s entire day”? This person, in whom God’s image resides.

Can we relate to our work as being an integral part of building a world that is worthy of God? Whether as a parent, or an engineer, or a teacher, or a repairperson, or especially the person who sweeps up the pieces that the rest of us leave behind. If we could maintain a consciousness that we are part of that Eternal building project, perhaps it might change not only how we view our work, but the kind of work that we do.