It’s exactly two years since I was fortunate to celebrate our son’s Bar Mitzvah in Israel. Standing at the kotel that Friday night, I spoke with a Sikh from India raptured by the atmosphere around us (in particular, a large group of Breslover Chassidim davening with song and fervor). It brought to mind the prophetic vision: “My House will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Our parsha opens with God inviting the people to open our hearts to contribute a veritable potpourri of color and materials:
“Gold, silver, and copper; turquoise, purple, crimson wool; linen and goat’s hair; ram’s skin dyed red, (multicolored) tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil… spices… shoham stones…” With all of this we are to “make a Sanctuary (mishkan) …and I will dwell among them.”
The Aron (Ark), like the mishkan itself, was a composite of various materials. Hammered out from the ends of the lid – from the same piece of metal – were two cherubim. These had both child-like and angelic features, perhaps representing the meeting of disparate entities: physicality and spirituality. R’ Hayyim Azulai (18th century Israel, Western Europe, Tunisia, Morocco, Italy) teaches that the cherubim remind us to be child-like in our approach to Torah i.e. filled with purity, curiosity and wonder. R’ Abraham b Jacob Saba (15th century Spain, Portugal, and Morocco) suggests that the cherubim’s sheltering posture indicates that the Torah study of youngsters serves as a protection for the community. (Perhaps he lived with hope that the younger generation would not have to live their lives on the run from expulsions and in fear of their neighbors.)
The verses continue to describe God’s instructions to include the “Testimony” in the Aron. In time it would hold the second set of tablets (given to Moses on Sinai) alongside the fragments from the first set. We too must find ways to incorporate and embrace those that are broken under the same roof as those that appear whole. Along similar lines, it’s noteworthy that all the dimensions of the Aron are given in fractions rather than whole numbers. Rabbeinu Yaakov Ben Asher (aka the Tur, 13th-14th century Germany and Spain) explains this unusual phenomenon as indicating the need for humility when it comes to Torah: there’s always more to achieve on our journey to understand/love God. Could the Tur be challenging us to be open to different viewpoints completing our way of understanding Torah/God and adding dimensions to our learning?
According to the Mishna in Masechet Shekalim, there is a tradition that since the destruction of the 1st Beit Hamikdash (Temple), the Aron is hidden away in a tunnel under Lishkat HaEtzim (the Room of the Wood) in the southeastern corner of the Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Courtyard); the ultimate symbol/vessel of Torah and holiness is safeguarded in the women’s domain.
Embracing diversity doesn’t just enrich our experience, it is essential to building a Sanctuary.
However old/young you are, whether you are broken, from a fractured background, a different color than those around you, or feel that your essence is hidden away in a corner, our parasha reminds us that we all have a calling to make a private and collective contribution to the whole.