Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner is most well-known for his decades-long leadership of the Chaim Berlin yeshiva in New York and his magnum opus, Pachad Yitzchak. So I was completely astounded to learn that he authored the words to what became a well-known song, “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” — I will build a Tabernacle in my heart (based on a poem by Rabbi Elazar Azkari that was published in Sefer HaHaredim). These three words have always resonated with me, reminding me that I — and you — contain a piece of pure holiness and the potential to build an entire mishkan, a holy tabernacle, or sanctuary in which the Divine can dwell.
This week’s parashah contains the instructions to gather the raw materials and to build the Mishkan and all of its components. The Mishkan was the traveling sanctuary, a precursor to the permanent Beit HaMikdash (Temple) that would be built, almost 500 years later, by King Solomon. The parashah and the process begins with the following command to Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:2). The section lists the various gifts that are desired: precious metals, like gold and silver; luxurious fibers, like yarns dyed scarlet and purple; fine linen; precious gems; and rare spices. The section ends with God declaring, “And they will make for Me a holy place and I will dwell among them” (ibid. 25:8).
Contradictions, questions, and juxtapositions jump out of the text. How can a verse stipulate both “they will take a gift for Me” and “their hearts will voluntarily give”? How “voluntary” are these gifts? Were they really gifts or more like tithes? We know from archaeological excavations that ancient temples had donor plaques; was peer pressure a factor, or the need to prove one’s generosity to the neighbors? What if you didn’t have these materials? And most intriguing, if not troubling, why does an invisible, incorporeal Deity even need a house at all, specifically one built of such expensive materials?
The commentaries grapple with the language of the verse, and illuminate both the process of giving and what it does for the giver. Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz, author of K’li Yakar (16th century), drawing on the Talmud, which explains that gaba’im (representatives) were to be appointed to collect the donations, adds that the first command is actually on the gaba’im themselves: they should be the first ones to give. This is a powerful message — the fundraiser himself is setting an example, proving himself part of the community and not above it. This command also ensures that the fundraisers can empathize with those who may not have much to donate. This model of “acharai” (follow me) is a hallmark of leadership and community building.
The author of HaKetav veHaKabbalah (19th century) expands on the relationship between the donor, the recipient, and the entire gift-giving process. When a person of importance solicits a gift from you, you rise in stature. Imagine if your favorite rock star, movie icon, or author wanted your autograph or asked you for a selfie. How that would impact your self-confidence and self-esteem, not to mention your worth in others’ eyes! How much time and energy do we spend in today’s social media universe to connect ourselves to influencers?
Moreover, given that that is true among human beings, how much more so is it the case when the gifts are requested by, and donated to, a divine cause? Of course you want to contribute! That desire provides the explanation for why the verse begins with “and they will take,” and ends with “whatever the giver’s heart moves him to donate.”
The commentaries whose approach fuses text and metaphysics view this entire process of Mishkan building — from soliciting donations to the raw material requested to the objects in the Mishkan and their form — as a microcosm of the individuals’ relationships with their souls, and, by extension, with God. In his introduction to this parashah, Nachmanides (13th century) explains that the Mishkan was meant to replicate the revelation at Sinai on a consistent basis. It was to be the place where God’s presence was palpably and indisputably felt by all.
It is Malbim’s (19th century) approach that speaks to me the most. For him, all that is physical is a vehicle for connecting us with our souls, the divine element in each of us. Every gift that was given represents a piece of the giver, and the various gifts represent the diversity of human nature. Different people have different strengths and, in the words of Howard Gardner, different intelligences. The gifts, then, are not just parts of our portfolios, but pieces of ourselves. God asks from each person “that which his heart volunteers.” The heart represents one’s essence. Your strength can be your sharp intellect, your logical mind, or your physical strength and athletic prowess. Your strength can be your creativity as expressed in music, writing, or art. Some are brilliant in the kitchen or in the garden. And some are profound geniuses of the human spirit, the most compassionate, kind, and empathic people. Every gift that was requested was valuable, rare, and refined — as precious as the individual soul.
“They should make for me a holy place and I shall dwell among them.” The sum total of all the gifts is a place where God lives. I can build a mini-tabernacle in my heart by using my strengths in service of the divine mission. That mission, I believe, means that we are each charged with recognizing our own — and others’ — divinity and unique purpose. We each must give our best, in whatever way that manifests (and we need representatives to give their best as well). God is not physical and does not need a physical home; He can be found anywhere and everywhere. We, however, are physical, and must relate to the world of the spirit through the physical universe we inhabit. The Mikdash — the permanent home of God — is built when individuals give of their best selves for the sake of the community and to honor the Divine in each person. When we create a holy space in our hearts, then God will surely dwell in each one of us and among us all.