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March 11, 2016

IKEA and the Mishkan (Parashat P’kudei)

Stephanie D. Kolin

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When I moved to Los Angeles about six years ago, I found I needed some new furniture, including a set of leaning bookshelves from IKEA. 

I laid out all the necessary tools as I was instructed—as my father taught me. I laid out the directions and the picture of the finished product.  And I began to build.

Within about an hour of this IKEA adventure, I was… not doing so well.  I cursed the very idea of Swedish meatballs, though I took it back immediately. Those things are delicious. 

Then I sat on the floor of my new apartment and I cried.  Now, I’m not embarrassed about that; I’m fairly certain that that’s part of IKEA’s vision for building their furniture—and anyway, it was more of a warrior cry (*shakes head no). 

I cried because the instruction sheet said: this is a two-person job, and I was feeling very sorry for my one-person self.  I cried because I dropped it on my foot, injuring both my foot and the piece of furniture.  And I cried because I was so exasperated by the disparity between the picture on the box that I was supposed to build—and what I felt capable of building.

This week, Moses and our people complete—finally—the building of the Mishkan, our Tabernacle, our own IKEA project in the wilderness.  We began learning about it five weeks ago and finally, tonight, we read that it’s done.  Torah offers us a fairly straightforward account of how this went. God gives Moses the instructions. Moses gives them to Betzalel, and then with the help of all the people, they construct this portable ark.

But the rabbis of the midrash choose to complicate matters.  To breathe some real emotion and human experience into the events.  The midrash tells us that the way that God shows Moses what he is to build is by projecting the image of the Mishkan across the entire side of the mountain in blazing red fire, green fire, black fire, and white fire.  God said, “Build it to look like this!”

And Moses answers, “Oh God, where am I going to get red fire, green fire, black fire, and white fire?  That’s great, but I only have what we have in our tents and we are all out of fiery mountainside.”  The rabbis teach that God answers, “U’reh va’aseh b’tavnitam asher atah mareh bahar—Look and see, and build it after the pattern—the tavnit—that is shown to you on the mountain,” a quote borrowed from earlier in Exodus.  God says to just build using this as a pattern, a basic idea.  Or as the rabbis interpret it: “You in accord with your raw materials and I in accord with my glory.  Build it,” they teach, “as best you can with what you have.  I have stars above, you clasps below. I have standing angels, you have standing planks of wood.  Get as close to this vision as you can and,” God says, “if you do, I will come from my place in the heavens to dwell among you.” 

So why do the rabbis add this dialogue between a frustrated Moses and flexible God?  I think to some extent because this world is our imperfect building project.  We’ve got the blueprints, we have the basic idea of what we’re supposed to do. But more often than not, the picture on the box is a disparate image from both what we feel capable of building and the materials we have with which to build.  Consider the project you are working on right now—your job, your family, your marriage, your romantic relationship, your friendships, your sense of self, your vision for your future, your work to make our world a more just place. 

It can all feel out of reach: the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfected world.  We gaze at a mountain of red fire, green fire, black fire, and white fire compared to what we’ve got and think, this doesn’t look like I thought it would.  So the rabbis of the midrash come to remind us that we can only do the best we can with what we’ve got.

And maybe that seems like a cop-out, something we tell kids to make them feel better—that to make an effort is good enough.  I mean, the bookcases are only good if they can hold all the books, if they can do their job.  The Mishkan comes with a promise that if we build it well, God will dwell among us.  So is this a rabbinic cop-out or is it real?  Can we build something worthy with what we’ve got, with only our capacity, even if it does not look like we thought it would?

From the end of our parashah: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and—k’vod Adonai male’ et hamishkan—the Presence of God, filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Mishkan, because the Presence of God filled it.”

This portion, the Torah portion that ends the book of Exodus, ends not with a whimper, but with a bang. Once the Mishkan is complete, as soon as that last piece is attached, it whirs to life. It beats. It breathes. It becomes our compass, our protector, our communication threshold with the divine.  Made with the work of flawed hands and the materials of finite beings, it probably looks nothing like the picture on the box.  But God loves it so much that God fills the space with God’s presence so extensively that Moses can’t even squeeze inside it anymore.

We are each building something, or more likely, many somethings.  They will be imperfect because we are; our materials will be creative, sometimes makeshift, intimations of the instructions, aspirations of holy outcomes.

Perhaps on this Shabbat, we can absorb the teaching of our midrash—that our building is worthy, that our work is blessed, that the materials we’ve got are not just good enough, but are indeed very good.  For to find a way to translate a fiery mountain—a vision of a perfect job, a perfect relationship, a perfected world, into a liveable and doable reality—is comparable to the work of Moses on his best day.