by Amy Meltzer

By the end of the book of Exodus, the Torah has described the minute details of the construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, 5 separate times. Clearly there is something important to be learned here ­ and it’s not just how to make a tabernacle in the middle of the desert – a skill of questionable value in 2016. The primary lesson isn’t about the product, it’s about the process.

Biblical Commentators draw many comparisons between the narrative of the Israelites’ building of the mishkan and the narrative of God’s creation of the world. From these parallels, we learn that the building of the mishkan is a model of how humans engage in the sacred work of creation. Indeed, the Sefat Emet taught that the mishkan narrative “shows the redemptive potential in all other acts of construction.”

The mishkan is not the first act of construction in the Torah – so what makes this one sacred? To begin to answer this question, let’s compare it to a few earlier examples in the book of Exodus.

At the start of Exodus, the Israelites are builders, building the cities of Pitom and Ramses for Pharoah. There’s no shortage of reasons why this would not be an ideal example of construction. The Israelites were working against their will,  using increasingly poor materials, and, as the Torah tells us “the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve B’FARECH” ­ with harshness, or rigor.

Later, in this same book, the Israelites participate in another building project ­ the egel hazahav, the Golden Calf. This project represents the people’s will, and is made of high quality materials that they contribute voluntarily. But, the project emerges from a place of fear. And, rather than participate in the building, the Israelites just handed everything over to Aaron. Lastly, it was not a carefully planned and executed project. According Aharon’s version of the story, “ When they brought (the gold) to me, I simply threw it into the fire – and out came this calf!”

So once again, not a fantastic model.

Finally, let’s turn to the mishkan. Why does this project represent a sacred act of creation? Let’s look at four characteristics: Treasured materials, Craftsmanship, Heart and Spirit, and a higher purpose.

TREASURED MATERIALS: The very finest materials were used in the building of the mishkan ­including gold, silver, copper, dyed wool, acacia wood, and precious stones. Not only were these items of value, but the Israelites had been shlepping  them all the way from Egypt.

CRAFTSMANSHIP: Rather than simply emphasize the beautiful materials, the Torah goes into painstaking detail about what was made from the beautiful materials. Indeed, some form of the verb “make” appears 248 times the the Tabernacle narrative. In addition, the Torah enumerates the many specific skills the go into the building of the mishkan ­ weaving, embroidery, metalwork, stonecutting. Clearly, these were not skills the Israelites learned making bricks and garrison cities. So, God provides teachers ­ endowing Bezalel with chochma, tvunah and daat ­ wisdom, understanding and knowledge ­ and most importantly u-l’HOROT NATAN LIBO ­ God put it in his heart to TEACH.

HEART AND SPIRIT: You could argue that the Mishkan, like the work in Egypt, was forced ­ commanded by God, but the language of the Torah tells a very different story. The word LEV, or heart and RUACH, spirit, describe the participants in a variety of configurations. Who contributed materials? “everyone whose heart moves him (kol nediv libo) shall bring them; everyone whose heart was raised (kol is hasher naso libo.) and everyone whose spirit moved him (kol asher ndava rucho). The craftspeople are filled with wisdom of heart(chochmat lev) and Bezalel is filled with the spirit of God (ruach Elohim).

Why are the Israelites making this mikdash? God tells Moses “V ‘asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, ­ They shall make me a holy place so that I can dwell in their midst”.  Ultimately, this project is sacred work – making space for God in their everyday lives.

IMG_2950When I read about the characteristics of the building of the mishkan, I immediately think of kindergarten. In the Gan where I teach, every day children take materials that are valuable to them, and build, or create, something ­ with their hands, their hearts and their spirit. They use the skills we have taught them ­ how to cut, how to glue, how to stitch, and even how to clean up a workspace. No matter what they make  – whether it’s a life size pair of wings with duct tape handles, a box made entirely out of tile samples, or a set of bongos made from empty cans and purple masking tape – I see in their work, a higher purpose. When I watch children make stuff, they show me every day what the sefat emet described: the redemptive potential in each act of construction. They build with chochmat lev and ruach elohim. I see it in their sense of purposefulness, their ingenuity, their cooperation, and most of all, their JOY and PRIDE. I see glimpses of the next Bezalel on a daily basis.

As a people, we are no longer working on a mishkan. But working together to make stuff  with our hands, making it freely, with beloved materials, using our lev and our ruach is no less important than it was in the midbar. And sadly, it’s becoming less and less a part of many children’s lives. Instead, it’s being replaced with something called rigor ­ ironically, the very translation the old JPS and the King James bible use for b’farech ­ the way the Torah describes the work of slaves.

IMG_2952As I said in my speech at the Covenant Awards in November ­ there is a trend to make kindergarten look more like the rest of school, when instead, the rest of school should  look more like kindergarten.

What might it look like for our communities to make a commitment to giving children the opportunity to immerse themselves in the divine work of creation? We don’t need gold, silver and fine wool. Instead we could follow the example of the Remida of Reggio Emila  – and establish creative reuse centers where everyone whose heart moved them – kol nediv libo  – contributed their old cd’s, their leftover yarn scraps, and their unwanted treasures. What if we gave children, young and old, a space express themselves? And we taught them skills of craftspeople? And invited them  to listen to the ruach elohim and be guided their chochmat lev?

The Israelites needed the experience of building a mishkan before they were ready to enter the land of Israel. Our children need a REMIDA before they can be ready enter the future. Why a reuse center? To quote from the website of the REMIDA project in Wyoming “in an era where sustainability is paramount to our future  success, we need our youngest generation to learn and see multiple potentials for a single object. It is not only a path of creativity; it is also the path of innovation.”

Having a space to create in, and materials to create with, is a way we invite the Divine into our lives ­ the way we make and express meaning in the world. This is true for all of us – but especially true for children. We don’t know who our next Bezalel is, but we may never find him or her if we do not give children of all ages this kind of laboratory for thinking.

Amy is a Kindergarten Teacher at Lander Grinspoon Academy and a Covenant Award Recipient 2015.