The following is a partial write up of remarks delivered this past Shabbos at Cong. Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey. Its subject matter—the construction of the “mishkan”—applies equally to this week’s parshah, Tetzaveh, and to the upcoming parshahs of Vayakhel and Pekudei.
Does your kitchen feel outdated? Is your roof falling apart? Could your powder room use new finishes?
Don’t worry – this isn’t a sales pitch. But it is the sort of pitch which we’ll soon be hearing quite often, as February rolls into March, and homeowners across the country begin thinking about the home improvement projects they’d like to undertake this year. Whether you’re looking to renovate a room, design an addition, or perhaps even build a house from scratch, chances are high that if you do go ahead with it, it’s going to happen at some point in the spring or summer.
And when that happens, there’ll inevitably come dozens of décor details to sort through – details like tile size, trim style, and paint color. Those are the details that are exciting to think about. Then there’s a whole other set of details: the logistical details. These are the kinds of details that usually give us headaches, and that we’d prefer not to worry about.
Yet they’re not details we can afford to overlook—and the data’s there to prove it. Because in 2015, KPMG conducted a global construction study in which they surveyed 100 organizations regularly involved in capital construction. Overall, they found that 44% of respondents struggled to attract qualified labor; 69% of projects overshot their budget by more than 10%; and 75% failed to finish within 10% of their deadlines. So while the choice between marble versus granite, or hardwood versus laminate, is certainly important, perhaps the metrics which matter more when assessing a construction project are, in fact, the organizational ones: labor, budget, and timeline.
And if that’s the case, then maybe we need to rethink the way we read this week’s parshah. See, in this week’s parshah, Hashem instructs b’nei Yisrael to undertake a monumental construction project: the construction of the mishkan—or “tabernacle,” in English. And traditionally, when we study this parshah, we focus on the symbolism of the mishkan’s various vessels: the mizbeach, the menorah, the aron hakodesh, and so on. We focus, in other words, on the details of its “interior design.” These are valuable issues to examine. Yet if we want to gain insight into the meaning of the mishkan, on the whole, perhaps we need to zoom out, and consider the big picture—to analyze this project a little less like Benjamin Moore might, and a little more like the folks at KPMG. Because if we stop to think about it, we’ll realize that the logistics of this project present some problems.
Let’s rewind. Hashem comes to Moshe, and commands the nation to build a grand tabernacle at the foot of Mount Sinai. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not so fast. Because if I’m a big consulting firm, assigned to evaluate the viability of this venture, I think there are three key questions I’d want to raise.
The first is a question of skill. B’nei Yisrael are a nation of shepherds. Avraham was a shepherd. Yitzchak was a shepherd. Yaakov was a shepherd. Yosef and his brothers were shepherds. Moshe was a shepherd. They’re all shepherds! So where, exactly, did these shepherds acquire the technical expertise needed to construct a monument as complex as the mishkan?
The second question is a question of supplies. B’nei Yisrael are wandering in the middle of the desert. They barely have bread or water. So where, exactly, did they find the precious metals needed to furnish this mishkan—the gold, the silver, the copper, and so on?
And the third question is a question of scheduling. We often gloss over this, but do you know how many years b’nei Yisrael were given to complete construction of this mishkan? Less than one. Everything we read about in this week’s parshah, and next week’s, and basically through to the end of sefer Shemot, and into Vayikra—it was all put together in a matter of months. Why the time crunch? Why was it so critical to have the mishkan erected by the day that it was—that is, by the first of the month of Nissan?
If I’m working for KPMG, these are the questions that I’m asking about this project. And, if I pursued those questions, I think I’d find them leading me to profound insights; insights which concern not only the viability of this venture, but also, perhaps, its value—its purpose. Because it turns out that all three of these questions point in the same direction.
They point us back to Egypt.
Think about it.
Where did b’nei Yisrael learn to construct buildings? They gained that experience when they were slaving away for Pharaoh, in Egypt.
Where did they acquire gold, silver and copper? They received these from their neighbors, in Egypt, as a sort of token compensation for those centuries of slavery.
And what’s so significant about the deadline for this project—the first of Nissan? Well, Nissan was the month that b’nei Yisrael were freed from Egypt; rosh chodesh marked a year, to the day, of Moshe’s announcing that it would finally be happening.
This can’t be coincidental. It can’t be a coincidence that all the major details about the construction of the mishkan—that is, the second major construction project in b’nei Yisrael’s history—draw directly from the experience of their first major construction project, back in Egypt. Frankly, it’s a wonder that it took us this long to notice it.
Because, remember—what was it, exactly, that b’nei Yisrael were so busy building for the Egyptians, all those centuries in slavery? וישימו עליו שרי מסים, the Torah tells us: “the Egyptians appointed taskmasters over b’nei Yisrael,” למען ענתו בסבלתם, “in order to oppress them with forced labor,” ויבן ערי מסכנות לפרעה, “and they built store cities for Pharaoh.” Store houses: מסכנות. They built miskenot. And now, they’re building a mishkan.
Kind of sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But there are, of course, some major differences.
For while miskenot are where we gather grain, mishkenot are where we house Hashem.
And while it was Pharaoh’s כבד לב, his heart heavy with greed, which insisted upon the construction of the miskenot, it is a state of נשא לב, our parshah tells us—of hearts uplifted in the spirit of generosity and magnanimity—which inspires the building of mishkenot.
And while miskenot are built through עבודת פרך—labor that breaks man’s inner spirit—mishkenot offer us a פרוכת: a barrier, a break, from the hustle and bustle of the rat race outside, so that we can focus on the things that really matter.
And that’s because, ultimately: Miskenot are monuments of material wealth. Mishkenot, by contrast, are sanctuaries of the spirit.
Nor is the mishkan merely some structure that our ancestors built in the Sinai desert 3,000 years ago. Each of us, Chazal tell us, has an obligation to shape our homes into a mikdash me’at: a miniature sanctuary; a microcosm of the mishkan. And so, whether or not we’re currently considering physical upgrades to our home, the truth is that we should all be thinking about “home improvement.” Because if our walls really did have ears, as the idiom goes—and eyes too, for that matter, and a mouth—what would we want them to say about the types of homes that we’re building?
How would they see us acting in our homes? Do we check our anger and our pettiness at the door, so that our homes can grow into places of warmth, love and laughter?
What do we choose to showcase in our homes? Do they boast merely of our material acquisitions, or do we fill them with books of Torah and tashmishei mitzvah?
What do we choose to speak about in our homes? Do we let our mealtimes and our Shabbos tables become breeding grounds for gossip and idle chatter, or do we permeate them with divrei Torah, zemiros, and substantial conversation, aimed at forging deep connections with our loved ones?
Who do we choose to invite into our homes? Are they frequented only by our friends and relatives, or do we open them to strangers, tzedakah collectors, and all those who simply need company? Are our homes, ultimately, homes where Hashem Himself feels welcome to dwell?
Like b’nei Yisrael, in this week’s parshah, that’s the goal we must strive to meet. Like them, we must constantly make sure that it’s mishkenot, not miskenot, which we’re trying to build. Because, when all is said and done, it won’t be the size of our homes, nor the cost of their finishes, by which we’re appraised; when all is said done, it’ll be the families we built, and the memories we shared, and the values we represented, which shall serve as our real estate.