“Identifying the Essentials of Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, is the first of four parashiot: Terumah, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel, Pekudei, and even part of parashat Ki Tisa, are devoted to the building of the Mishkan–the Tabernacle–and its furnishings. In most years, some of these parashiot are doubled up and read on a single Shabbat, sparing us the “agony” of having to review the many minute details of the Mishkan for four full weeks. Since this year, 5765, is a leap year, an additional month of Adar is added to our calendar. Thus, this year, each and every one of the parashiot will be read individually on its own Shabbat. Recalling the well known aphorism, “G-d is in the details,” we should be grateful that this year we have the opportunity to review and analyze the edifying details of the Tabernacle’s construction.

Over the millennia, the Tabernacle has been studied and analyzed from many angles and perspectives. There is much that we have learned, and continue to learn, from the Tabernacle that is relevant for contemporary life.

Among the most insightful reflections regarding the Tabernacle are those of Moses Mendelssohn, who analyzed the various aspects of the Tabernacle from a political and moral point of view. Mendelssohn points out that the building of the Tabernacle invokes the full array of human creativity, craftsmanship and skills. Without these skills, no community can exist or survive. Mendelssohn cogently classifies these skills into three categories:

1. Essential Arts: These skills pertain to the obtaining or manufacturing of food, clothing and shelter, and are elementary requirements for the pursuit of happiness, even on a most modest level.

2. Useful Arts: This involves the construction of roads, bridges, and the practice of metal craftsmanship that is necessary in the manufacture of utensils and other metal implements.

And finally: 3. Ornamental Arts: These are distinguished by the use of arts and crafts that enhance our lives with beauty and the appreciation of the finer things in life.

Let us explore these three categories in greater detail.

Things that are necessary for survival are referred to by Mendelssohn as the “essential arts.” These were represented in the building of the Tabernacle by the priestly duties associated with the sacrificial rite. Since most sacrifices were eaten, this reflects the most basic need for human survival. Bezalel, the architect of the Tabernacle, and Oholiyav, his assistant, were also involved in the manufacture of clothing for the priests who served in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle itself was made of various skins, thus representative of shelter. There is no question that if any society is to survive, it must master the art of providing these essential needs for its members.

Any society that hopes to advance economically and flourish must develop the so-called “useful arts.” This is, in essence, the “art” of streamlining life. Many of these elements are often taken for granted–such as the wheel, the knife and fork. These revolutionary inventions allow our society to, not only endure, but to flourish, and to go well beyond the essence of survival. As a result of the “useful arts,” we are now able to travel. We are now able to manufacture much more durable items, like pots and pans, bows and arrows, bridges and roads. We are no longer merely subsisting, we are enhancing creature comfort to the next very important level.

But there is yet a third level of craftsmanship called by Mendelssohn “ornamental arts” that raises society to even greater unanticipated heights. We are no longer talking about those things that are necessary for survival, or those things that make life easier, like a wheel and a fork. We are speaking of those things that enhance our lives with beauty, that introduce a sense of the aesthetic into our lives. It is reflected best in song, music, dance, poetry, theater, opera, fine arts and painting.

It is perhaps in the area of the ornamental arts that we confront the most mesmerizing and seductive of all elements of workmanship, and yet the most dangerous. The purpose of building the Tabernacle is to inspire the People of Israel to work toward contributing to the common human good and to provide the necessities that are required to ensure a thriving nation.

And yet, how do we ensure that we not go beyond the limits of temperance? This same fundamental question is the one we face in society today. Can we justify spending millions of dollars on the production of a Broadway play as long as there is a single starving person in the city? Can we justify the production and selling of one piece of art, as long as there is a child stricken with a life-threatening disease who awaits a cure? In effect, how do we balance the needs of the essential and useful, with the ornamental and aesthetic?

Judaism promotes the concept and practice of hidur mitzvah (glorifying a mitzvah)–of buying a beautiful etrog, decorating a sukkah, buying a beautiful Chanukah menorah and Shabbat candlesticks, enhancing the Shabbat and holiday table with fine linen and beautiful tableware. All this is done in the name of hidur mitzvah–of enhancing the beauty of the mitzvah, which of course, is meant to further enhance the name of G-d.

Can Judaism’s emphasis on aesthetics and beauty be justified simply because it is done for the sake of Heaven? I would suggest that the issue is more complex. Perhaps it’s not merely doing something for the sake of Heaven that justifies the extra effort and expenditure. But rather, it is that when doing something for the sake of Heaven, people suddenly realize that the bottom line of all of Jewish practice and ritual is the sanctity of human life and its enhancement.

Through the building of the Tabernacle, and by including all these three elements of life, we learn how G-d-directed all our efforts must be, that what might seem like frivolous concertizing, can become a critically important revenue-raiser to be used for the benefit of handicapped children or families in need. By providing ornamental pleasures and constructive entertainment, we can reduce stress, and make medical research more effective in their pursuit of a cure. In other words, as long as our deeds are l’shaym shamayim–for “the sake of heaven,” they may be justified.

B.S. Jacobson in his book, Meditations on the Torah, (Sinai Publishing, 1977) cogently sums up the dangers of loosing proper focus. Referring to the essential, useful and ornamental arts, Jacobson writes:

All these works now contribute toward the common weal and the national good, as long as they are kept within the limits of temperance. However, if they yield to luxury–they become definitely harmful. A luxurious trend in ornamental arts will doom national happiness, as it will cause indulgence, conspicuous consumption, and predatory interest, which in turn will lead to envy, social tension, competitive and aggressive spirit, and ultimately to factionalism and class struggle, resulting in upheaval, disorder and corruption, and national disaster. (p.112)

If our goal is to build a “Tabernacle” (a holy home) utilizing these skills, arts and workmanship, then our efforts will surely be blessed. Otherwise, our efforts will be of no lasting benefit or value.

May you be blessed.