“Identifying the Essentials of Life”
(updated and revised from Terumah 5765-2005)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, is the first of four parashiot: Terumah, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel, Pekudei, along with part of parashat Kee Tisah, that concern the building of the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan–the Tabernacle, and its furnishings.

In a leap year, an additional month of Adar, Adar II, is added to the Hebrew calendar, resulting in extra Shabbatot. Consequently, each of the five parashiot are read individually on its own Shabbat. In most years, however, some of these parashiot are doubled up and read on a single Shabbat, sparing the congregants the “agony” of having to review the many minute details concerning the construction and furnishings of the Mishkan for five full weeks.

This year, the final two parashiot, Vayakhel and Pekudei, will be doubled up. As we read the details of the Mishkan for “only” four weeks this year, bear in mind the well-known adage, that “G-d is in the details.” We must, therefore, always be grateful to have the opportunity to review and analyze the edifying features, and the many fascinating “secret” details and profound messages, that the Tabernacle and its construction have to convey and teach.

Over the millennia, the Tabernacle has been studied and analyzed from many angles and perspectives. Contrary to common perception, there is much that we have learned, and continue to learn, from the Tabernacle that is relevant for all times, even contemporary times.

Among the most insightful reflections regarding the Tabernacle, are those of Moses Mendelssohn, who analyzed the various aspects of the Tabernacle from both political and moral perspectives. 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–food. Bezalel, the architect of the Tabernacle, and Oholiav, his assistant, were also involved in the manufacture of clothing for the priests who served in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle itself was a structure made of wooden columns covered by layers of various skins, thus representative of shelter. There is no question that for any society to survive, it must master the art of providing these essential needs, food, clothing and shelter, for its members.

Any society that hopes to advance economically and flourish, must develop the so-called “useful arts,”–which is, in essence, the “art” of streamlining life. Many of these elements are often taken for granted, such as the wheel, the knife and the fork. These revolutionary inventions allow society to not only endure, but to flourish, and to eventually develop well beyond the essence of basic survival. As a result of the benefits of the “useful arts,” we are now able to travel considerable distances. We are now able to manufacture much more durable items, such as 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.

The third level of craftsmanship called by Mendelssohn “ornamental arts,” raises society to even greater, and in many cases, unanticipated heights. We are no longer referring to things that are necessary for survival, or things that make life easier, such as a wheel or a fork. We refer to 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 productive and 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 regularly in contemporary times. 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 sale 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 the useful, with the ornamental and aesthetic?

Judaism promotes the concept and practice of הִדּוּר מִצְוָהhidur mitzvah (glorifying a mitzvah)such as 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? But, perhaps 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 three skills/elements of life, we learn how G-d-directed all our efforts must be, that what might seem frivolous, such as concertizing, can become a critically important revenue-raiser to be used for the benefit of physically-challenged children or families in need. By providing ornamental pleasures and constructive entertainment, we can reduce stress, and make medical research in pursuit of cures more effective. In other words, as long as our deeds are לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם–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 losing proper perspective. 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.