Penina Grossberg, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, lives in Teaneck, NJ and mentors new teachers. She can be reached at email@example.com
As we enter the month of Adar II some of us may be preparing masks and costumes in anticipation of Purim. Even though Purim is a masquerade holiday, it also has a message about unmasking ourselves. The same is true of this week’s Torah readings. While on a literal level Pekudei is about the physical appearance of the mishkan and the materials used to assemble this portable sanctuary, the Torah portion also suggests meanings deeper than the physical structures.
Parashat Shekalim, the special maftir reading for this Shabbat, announces the required contribution of a 1⁄2-shekel from every adult male as a means for conducting a census and later for maintaining the Temple. The half-shekel is not only to count people, but it also teaches us about counting on people and recognizing that every person counts. Parashat Pekudei includes an accounting of the number of half-shekels collected from the community. In order to build the mishkan, later to maintain the Temple, and today to support our own communal institutions, the community depends upon every member of our community. In Gematria, the numerical value of the word shekel is equivalent to the numerical value of the word nefesh. Donating a part of a shekel can be seen as contributing a part of your soul. As leaders, we must tap a part of every nefesh, every soul, the inner essence of every person.
The construction of God’s sanctuary in the desert called for the Israelites to bring individual gifts. Abravanel understands the multiple materials used for the construction of the mishkan as metaphoric representations of the various types of people contributing to it, none with a greater stake or importance, rather, all a part of the sacred task.
Multiple commentaries underscore that it takes all types of people. Alone, even Moses didn’t have everything needed for leading the construction project. Betzalel’s role as master craftsman is restated in this week’s Parasha. Moses brought his own gifts and unique temperament to the tasks of leadership. According to a Midrash, Moses kept confusing the details of the menorah. It was in recognition of Moshe’s limitations, this tradition suggests, that God chose Betzalel to oversee the construction.
God imbued Betzalel with a divine spirit of “wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.” How do we appreciate our own divine gifts and, like Betzalel, use our individual talents for the good of the community? How do we reach within ourselves and use our nefesh to put in our “2-cents,” or half-shekel, to maintain a sanctuary for the divine?
It is our humanness that we take with us to each personal and professional challenge. How do we use our selves creatively in our sacred communal work? To paraphrase a saying attributed to Galileo, “You cannot teach people anything; you can only help them find it within themselves.”
What is on the inside is as important as what is on the surface. According to Talmud Yoma, this message in inherent in the instructions for the mishkan. The ark was to be overlaid with pure gold, inside and outside, “tocho k’devaro”. Raba sees this as a metaphor for the scholar whose inside much match the outside.
About leadership, Warren Bennis wrote: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.” Let us put down our masks and look closely inside our selves. Therein lies our compassion, courage and creativity –the humanness that informs our interactions.
As we learn from the upcoming Purim holiday, Queen Esther emerges as heroine after she unmasks her identity. Not by ascending to the position of queen, but by acknowledging her identity, revealing her true self, and finding her own compassion, courage and creativity, does she save her people. Then the Book of Esther says: “it was a time of light and joy.” To usher in our time of light and joy, we must seek not merely the joy of the masquerade. Proverbs says, “The light of the Lord is the human nefesh.” We illuminate the world with divine light through our actions of compassion and courage.
Each of us must create within the nefesh a sanctuary for God’s divine light. The Israelites construct a mishkan not because God needs a dwelling place. God does not need to occupy an earthly home, but to enter into our hearts.
Exodus concludes by saying that after the construction was complete, the presence of God filled the mishkan. May we be privileged to create in our own hearts a mishkan to contain God’s presence, and may we reflect that divine light.