A Nation of Don Quixotes: Life, Art, and the Mishkan

Parashat Vayakhel, with its gold and wood and lapis lazuli, its rings and pegs and linen and masonry, is for many of us difficult to read. And yet it marks an unsung milestone in the story of the Jewish people: against the backdrop of generations of slavery, stranded in the surreal emptiness of the desert, we come together and build something. It isn’t the strange hands-free crime of Ki Tisa, where the people trade in their gold and are provided with a calf in return; no, this is real work, done with shared materials by many hands.

In fact, on the face of it, Am Yisrael returns in this parsha to the precise tasks it was assigned in Mitzrayim – crafting, carrying, constructing. One could even see the collection and preparation of materials as akin to the labor with which Pharaoh punished us after Moshe’s first intervention: gathering the raw substance to make the bricks of hard labor.

Despite any passing resemblance, however, this work is categorically different. B’nai Yisrael, after the spiritual and communal degradation of the parasha before, seem utterly changed. The story isn’t one of painful servitude, or even of reluctant contribution – on the contrary, “the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moshe, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord” (Shemot 35:29). Countless artisans, anointed with the skill and desire of chochmat-lev – the internal wisdom that qualifies people to work on the Mishkan – contribute their efforts. More to the point, these artisans have to ask Moshe to bar everyone else from bringing more offerings – “the people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks,” they marvel. Considering that our behavior in the desert is largely characterized by struggle and rebellion, this is surprising. Considering what should be a knee-jerk reluctance to anything that resembles the hard labor of Egypt, it’s all the more so.

So what are B’nai Yisrael doing? Why are they so willing to obey Hashem now, when they rejected Him a week ago? Why, after their redemption from Mitzrayim, are they willing to engage in physical labor – and why should we?

Here is what I believe, in a nutshell: in Mitzrayim, nothing mattered. In the construction of the Mishkan – and in the millennia of Jewish existence that follows it – everything does.

In this, I am inspired by Ze’ev Maghen, whose treatise Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews is many things: an ode to Jewish particularism, a love song to the state of Israel and the many strands of philosophy and history that gave rise to it, a fiercely religious hymn al pi Abbie Hoffman. And one of its most compelling claims is one that comes as a tangent, that may even have been cut from more recent editions, but that contributes to an understanding not only of the Mishkan but of the infinite moments in Jewish life where physical effort becomes transcendent.

Maghen cites Jose Ortega y Gasset’s analysis of Don Quixote – that Quixote is in mourning for a lost time where life and art and moral purpose are all seamlessly laced together, the steel-and-velvet universe of chivalry, which he sees dying before his eyes. The world we Jews inhabit today, says Maghen, is like the one in which Quixote was trapped. The modern West separates life from art, the practical from the passionate. It only has room for beauty and fantasy when they are kept at arm’s-length in an art museum; it only has room for religion when it is safely understated and out of the public eye. According to Maghen’s claim, the Jewish mission today is to do together what Quixote attempted alone. We are literally obligated to fight against this trend of separation by doing what we have always done best, both in our halacha and in our learning: uniting the physical with the spiritual, the sacred with the mundane.

This idea can perhaps be taken a step farther, however. The Quixoticity of halacha isn’t necessarily needed now more than ever; it isn’t a relic of some age where life and art were intertwined, and if it is, it’s because it was able to make the age that way. Like Quixote, Chazal themselves are nostalgic for a world that never quite existed. Once upon a time, says Don Quixote, the world was full of knights and ladies and extraordinary journeys. Once upon a time, laments Rabbi Papa in the third perek of Masechet Berachot, the wonder rabbis could pave the streets with miracles, even though our generation is so much more learned than they. It’s a fierce nostalgia that drives them to create extraordinary things. Yet, as we can tell from the sheer squalor of medieval European history, there never was an era of knights and ladies quite like Don Quixote conjures up. Rabbi Papa yearns for the days of Rabbi Yehuda, but Rabbi Yehuda was busy yearning for the demolished Beit haMikdash (Mishnah Eduyot is a truly Quixotic exercise in pleasure and pain, sorrow and the exultation of memory). In every generation – not just ours – the world, left to its own devices, has tended to separate art from the practical matters of life. And they know that something is missing there, and they long for the dreamtimes where once the two were linked together.

This way of thinking is, I fear, the default. It is the modern situation, and it is the situation in Mitzrayim. The Mitzrayim of Sefer Shemot, after all, is a comfortable, practical, well-organized society in which everyone is fed and the buildings are built right on time. And it is a society in which Hashem is nearly forgotten, and in which ideals of love and ethical behavior are forced to bow so low to pragmatism that slavery and genocide are considered quietly acceptable for convenience’s sake, and in which the human soul is considered so insignificant that, in Parashat Shemot, almost no one is even allowed the dignity of a name.

To accept the notion of kedusha – of beauty, intentionality, and ritual significance – is an active struggle against that situation. It is to assume that all the world is art and to allow yourself to live according to that notion. The story of Sefer Shemot is the movement from avodah zarah to kedusha – from the degradation of Mitzrayim to the sacred labor of the Mishkan.

Avodah zarah lavishes all meaning on one object, one pesel (or a variety of them). That object is holy above all others. The table is just a table, but the statue of Baal on top of it – that’s a god! There is a clear differentiation between the things that matter and the things that do not. This is the ghettoization of life versus art, the practical versus the beautiful. Monotheism – and, I would argue, especially the earthy and detail-obsessed monotheism of Tanach and its rabbinic interpreters – treasures all situations and all things, and our relationships to them are painstakingly choreographed so that we will never be in danger of treating them carelessly. All the world is literally art, the holy product of a perfect Creator. And to live in an art-world, to act in it, requires you to become an artist yourself. The halachic system is an artisan’s craft.

Surely the most striking example of kedusha’s elevation of life into art is the Mishkan. Do we need to hear, in exhaustive detail, all about those dolphin skins and precisely measured planks of acacia? And must we all hear it over and over, in multiple narrative accounts, until our ears are ringing with cubits of this and ephot of that, a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate? (Frankly, how many times do we really have to hear that same old story about Don Quixote attacking an innocent stranger or object and getting himself banged up in the process?)

What the Mishkan does for the People of Israel then and now is to begin to cultivate a way of seeing – and, in turn, a way of behaving – that one might call obsessive. The materials used for the Mishkan were yanked from the commercialized wasteland of Egypt, a place which treated people as objects, and treated them so cruelly and thoughtlessly that one can only imagine how it treated actual objects. Now, in the building of the Mishkan, Am Yisrael is asked to see these things as so holy that they are barely less essential to the story than any of its human characters – in fact, word for word, the showbread probably gets more of a mention than poor Dinah. The materials must be gilded in exactly the right fashion, and placed in exactly the right spot, because if treated well they will create an edifice of staggering holiness and beauty. In the process of that creation, we find in the materials themselves their own holiness, their own importance. This is the compulsive tooling-around of the artist, and it trains into us an artist’s mind. And if it doesn’t sink in the first time – there is a second telling, which imitates the careful repetition and perfectionist do-overs of a mad genius. There are so many words in this section, and reading them – let alone undertaking them – is as repetitive and boring and difficult and ultimately rewarding as a pianist practicing his scales.

Then Sefer Shemot ends, and the laws build on themselves, laws pertaining to animals and land and pots and tents no less than to people, putting each in its proper place and choreographing the complicated dance by which we relate to them. Why a grand jeté there? Why a parah adumah there? Dance is not reasonable in all its parts, and baruch Hashem! If we could break up a dance into the precise motives and effects of its constituent movements, perhaps we would lose the great wonder of the whole – which takes the human body beyond the ordinary and elevates it into a conduit for terrific power and mystery. Together, by living in accordance with these laws, we make our existence into art on a grand scale. (This is Bialik’s concept of “Halacha as the crystallization of Aggada”: that Halacha, too, is storytelling, on a different scale of space and time than a written story but no less packed with meaning.)

Eventually, if all has gone well, we become countless little Don Quixotes, unable to differentiate the “real” world from the world of law, the world of enacted story. One does not dig a ditch on Shabbat, not because the law is paramount in a person’s mind the moment he sees the shovel and chooses to refrain, but because as soon as the Shabbat candles are lit the color and texture and overlay of his phenomenological world changes to an extent that would make digging a ditch inconceivable. The universe that God created in words, that He, with the collaboration of Moshe Rabbenu, invited us to keep creating through law, has taken shape. It is the responsibility of generations afterwards not only to continue living it but – both in Torah she’baal peh and in the less dramatic goings-on of ordinary life – to constantly build it up, to grow off its premises and make it ever-stronger, ever-lovelier.

By this point, the line between life and art is so blurred that not only can life transform into art, but art into life. This, perhaps, is something like Mishnah Eduyot, or the series of aggadot in Masechet Gittin that conjure up the world of the Beit haMikdash on the eve of its destruction. What are these texts but Chazal’s attempt to build back up in language a place and time that has been lost to us? In short, it is storytelling at its finest, straddling the line between memoir and fiction. Yet it has bred into us a desire for the lost Beit haMikdash so acute that it sticks glass shards into husbands’ shoes at their own weddings. The Beit haMikdash is real not only because it once existed, but because we have continued to build it in our expressions of it, because we continue to build it up every time we sing Shir shel Yom or tell our children about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. We who have inherited the treasure of Jewish law and lore have the privilege of aiding in its creation, of making it prouder and thicker and less shakable.

Moment by moment, a Jewish life makes art and life inseparable. It builds holy objects and spins holy stories – it seeks art in life, and honors life through art. In short, all its ordinary work becomes infused with the service of God. This made sense to B’nai Yisrael in Parashat Vayakhel: because without fear, without complaint, with the extraordinary compass of chochmat-lev, they came together and built the Mishkan peg by peg.

This is B’nai Yisrael’s rejection of Mitzrayim and its affirmation of Hashem. It is the assertion that labor, even when it is commanded, is not necessarily slavery; it can be hallowed in every moment, it can give glory to God and affirm the value of human passion and prayer and art. It is the attitude that Am Yisrael will need at the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua, when we enter into our holy land for the first time and begin to build once more, not a physical entity, but a whole society. It is the attitude that drove Don Quixote beautifully, tragically mad. And it is an attitude that the world is in dire need of today.

About the Author
Sarah Marx is a writer, student, and olah chadasha. A recent graduate of St. John's College and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, she now lives and works in Jerusalem.
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