By Rabbi Eric Mollo
People don’t come fully assembled; they are built and broken, polished and sanded, hardened by experience, and softened by time. Every single one of us came into the world looking like the pieces inside of a box of Ikea furniture, yet to be twisted, prodded, hammered, glued and fashioned into an individual with increasingly more identifying characteristics.
No two people are the same and none of us come with convenient, or even confusing, instruction manuals. When we were born, our parents didn’t have a clue what the future held, and only a vague idea of what we might become. We are constantly evolving vessels in need of nurturing parents, mentors, teachers and text traditions to guide us through life’s many twists and turns. Ever growing, and ever changing, we merely forecast, and not foresee, what will become of us.
Soon after the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were asked to donate their most precious possessions to the cause of building a sacred dwelling for the God that rescued them from the hand of Pharaoh. In parshat Vayak’heil-P’kudei, the Israelites finally reckon with the mountain of donations mentioned earlier in the book of Exodus and the subsequent task of turning the gifts into something greater.
Such a transformation was no small task, and we might liken the idea to Moses asking the Israelites to open every box in Ikea, tip out the pieces within and reassemble the resulting mass of mismatched bits and bobs into a place worthy of God’s presence. Thus, in Exodus chapter 36 we read, “Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every skilled person whom Adonai had endowed with skill, everyone who excelled in ability, to undertake the task and carry it out.”
Just as the construction of the Mishkan required the best craftsman among the Israelites to bring the project to fruition, every single one of us also needs skilled instructors to hone and mold us into the best versions of ourselves.
One chapter later, in Exodus 37 we read, “Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two-and-a-half cubits long, a cubit-and-a-half wide, and a cubit-and-a-half high. He overlaid it with pure gold, inside and out; and he made a gold molding for it round about.”
Everything in the Mishkan, except for planks of wood, was measured by whole cubits and yet each side of the ark is measured in half cubits. Moreover, the inside of the ark that practically no one ever saw had to be covered in gold as well.
These seemingly imprecise measurements and overly adorned features are further elucidated upon by Chananel Ben Chushiel, an 11th-century sage and student of the last Gaon who teaches, “This is the reason why the ark was encased in gold both from the inside and the outside. It is a symbol of the righteous and intelligent man who is described as such only if his internal character qualities reflect the external image he projects … Just as the dimensions of the floor of the ark were two-and-a-half cubits in length and one-and-a-half cubits in width, resulting in a square area of four cubits, so the righteous person should remain constantly aware that the four elements (earth, fire, wind, and water) which make up his physicality should not become the sum total of his existence, but should be augmented liberally by the physical performance of good deeds such as caring for others … The walls of the ark total 12 cubits when measuring the combined total of the exterior dimensions. The combined lengths of the walls totaled 7.5 cubits, whereas the combined length of the short walls totaled 4.5 cubits. Thus, the righteous person is expected to fulfill all 12 conditions set out in Psalm 15 as the necessary qualifications to sojourn in God’s holy tent, or on God’s holy mountain.”
“Adonai, who may sojourn in Your tent,
who may dwell on Your holy mountain?
One who lives without blame
One who does what is right
One who acknowledges the truth in his heart
One whose tongue is not given to evil
One who has never done harm to his fellow
One who makes oaths to his neighbor
One who does not change his oaths
One for whom a contemptible man is abhorrent
One who honors those who fear Adonai
One who stands by his oath even to his hurt
One who has never lent money at interest
One who never accepted a bribe against the innocent
The one who acts thus shall never be shaken.
Like the miscellaneous parts within an IKEA box or the many ornamented structures of the Mishkan, we must always strive to be worthy creations by actively seeking out equally worthy architects of character. As the Mishkan was exchanged for a Temple, and the Second Temple was built upon the First, and subsequent Temples were built around the world in place of the Second, so, too, are we built to improve upon the generations that came before until all that remains is a vision of the world redeemed by compassionate hands and selfless hearts.
Rabbi Eric Mollo is the rabbi of Temple B’nai B’rith in Wilkes-Barre. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.