We Built It. Will They Come?

These are the Torah portions which try men’s souls. Or women’s. Or really anyone who attempts to find some kind of relevance in parsha after parsha, column after mind numbing column, of what can only be accurately be described as IKEA directions for some product called Tåbernacłe. You have to wonder–when the Israelites had finished this massive project, how many parts did they have left over?

But a traditional method of Torah study is based on the assumption that every word is necessary; there is nothing extraneous within the text. So in looking for a measure of meaning in these seemingly prosaic, pedantic, and shall I say, less exciting Torah portions, we have to assume that they’re there for a reason.

As I’ve been reading through these paragraphs over the past weeks–filled with minutiae of measurements, fabrics, colors, and building materials, it occurred to me that these words resonate to the modern mind more than ever. We routinely spend countless hours and huge sums of money to build, decorate, and maintain our synagogue buildings. Committees gather to discuss what color the upholstery of the pew seats will be. Plans are conceived for expansions or renovations. Building funds are established and capital campaigns are initiated.

Put another way, these Torah portions could well be the most relevant passages in the entire Tanach for today’s Jewish communities!

But that brings me to a question–many of us are familiar with the beautiful words:

Ma Tovu ohalecha Ya’akov; mish’k’notecha Yisrael

How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places [your mishkan], Israel.

Since these Torah portions are dealing specifically with the detailed instructions on how to construct the mishkan, the Tabernacle, one would imagine that these instructions would culminate in Ma Tovu–words of praise and blessing for the completed job. It would be a lot like having your contractor finish a huge project to your utmost satisfaction and posting a glowing review on Yelp.

But the famous words of Ma Tovu don’t appear here at all. Instead, they come much later in the book of Numbers as part of the well-known narrative of Balak and Bilaam. After Balak tries to get his prophet-for-hire, Bilaam, to curse the Israelites, Bilaam ends up blessing them instead (here’s a guy who did not get a good review on Yelp.). Bilaam looks down from his high vantage point at the entire people Israel and recites Ma Tovu. Tradition tells us that Bilaam was moved to recite these words after seeing how all the people lived together in harmony, and how their tents were open to each other rather than being closed off and private. Bilaam meant it literally: “How good are your tents.” Rather than any specific structure, no matter how magnificent, it’s the people who dwell within who define the value of a community.

Written thousands of years ago, the words of the Torah ring amazingly true to modern ears. Yes, we spend lots of time, effort, and money into building glorious synagogues, all planned down to the last detail. But while important and necessary, our own mishkan is not as vital as the people who use it. When we as a Jewish community live in harmony and open our homes to each other, that’s when we truly earn the word tov–good.

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Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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