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"You Work With Your Hand."

by: Cheryl Pedersen

What does Torah say about what to do when your personal life is falling apart? Believe harder? Go to church or synagogue more often? Give to charity? You might surprised at the answer.

Before we continue on into Leviticus and this week’s parashah, there’s one more puzzle to figure out before we leave Exodus. We’ve been reading about the creation of the temple for fifteen chapters. It started with Moses on the mountain getting all the detailed instructions from God for the Israelites to “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” We had the Golden Calf episode when Moses finally came down from the mountain. Then it was chapter after mind-numbing chapter telling of the building of the Tabernacle. Aaron and his sons were garbed in their priestly robes, anointed to serve the people, and Moses blessed it all.

Done deal, right? Except the Tabernacle was apparently some sort of erector set, all the posts and bars and sockets and coverings were completed along with the furnishings, but it wasn’t set up. In Exodus 40:1 we read, “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting.'” God goes on for 15 verses telling Moses where to place the Ark of the Covenant and to bring in the table and lay out the settings and put up the screen. He instructs him to put the laver at the entrance, fill it with water, and set up the enclosure around it.

Was Moses just arranging the furniture inside the Tabernacle? Nope. Read on:

In the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up. Moses set up the Tabernacle, placing its sockets, setting up its planks, inserting its bars, and erecting its posts. He spread the tent over the Tabernacle, placing the covering of the tent on top of it—just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Exodus 40:17-19

This continues through verse 33 as Moses does as God had instructed regarding the placement of all the screens and holy items in the Tabernacle. It’s the usual, tell-him-what-to-do-then-tell-about-him-doing sort of thing.

What does this mean? Is it really Moses doing all this work? Aren’t the Israelites helping at all? How does a single man in his 80’s manage to put together a tent 100 cubits by 50 cubits? A cubit is approximately 20 inches so this behemoth was 167 feet by 83.5 feet with additional structures within. Why just Moses and is that even humanly possible?

Rashi, the medieval French rabbi who authored extensive commentaries on the Talmud and Hebrew Bible, points us to Exodus 39:33 where it says, “Then they brought the Tabernacle to Moses, with the Tent and all its furnishings…” Rashi’s comment on why the Israelites brought the Tabernacle to Moses is this:

…Because they could not erect it. Since Moses had done no work in the Mishkan, the Holy One, blessed is He, left for him the task of erecting it [the Mishkan], since no human being could erect it [by himself] because of the heaviness of the planks; and no human was strong enough to put them up, but Moses [was able to] put it up. Moses said before the Holy One, blessed is He, “How is it possible for a human being to erect it [the Mishkan]?” He [God] replied, “You work with your hand.” He [Moses] appeared to be erecting it, and it arose by itself. This is [the meaning of] what it says: “the Mishkan was set up” (Exodus 40:17). It was set up by itself.

Midrash Tanchuma 11

We’re about to enter the book of Leviticus and learn all about the sacrifices offered by the Israelites at God’s command. Those sacrifices are about atonement which means “amends or reparations made for an injury or wrong.” The building of the Tabernacle, the sacrifices of money and goods by the people for the building of the Tabernacle, and the work done to create the objects for it were the Israelites’ atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Note Moses was curiously absent in the work done on the Tabernacle. He brought down the heavenly plans, handed them off to Bezalel and Oholiab who were put in charge of the project, and then he watched. He had nothing for which to atone. While Aaron was collecting gold and creating the Golden Calf for the people, Moses was on the mountain with God.

Although Moses was not part of the building of the items for the Tabernacle, God wanted him to be part of the finished product so Moses was given the task of setting it up. Impossible, right? Not, according to Rashi, if God Himself is helping you. Even Moses wondered how he could do it and God said, “You work with your hand.” When Moses began, God helped. As Rashi said, “Moses appeared to be erecting it, and it arose by itself.”

Why spend time on this tidbit at the end of Exodus? What could we possibly learn? I’ll answer the question with a question: What do you do when the problems you face are bigger than what you can fix—your finances are in disarray, your marriage is on the rocks, your health is failing fast, you’re depressed or anxious—where do you go? The answer is that you find an objective expert to help you. You go to a financial advisor, a counselor, a doctor to help you put things back together. You’ve done the work of “atonement” in recognizing that something needs to change. You’re ready for it, but you’re too close to it all to do it yourself. Your spouse or family members are too involved or not equipped to be of any real assistance.

That was Moses. He was the outsider, the one who didn’t participate in the sin, who had a close connection with God. He advocated before God for the Israelites and when forgiveness was granted and they had busied themselves with creating a space for God in their lives again, Moses put it all together. He was the only one who could set it all up in proper order after the people did the work of preparing what was needed.

In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, we read of a teaching from Joshua ben Perahiah:

“Select a master-teacher for yourself; acquire a colleague for study; when you assess people, tip the balance in their favor.”

This little gem instructs us so well. We need a master-teacher, a mentor if you will, an expert in our lives to help us put things back together. We need a friend with whom we can study Torah. Finally, we need to look at friends, mentors, others who need help, and perhaps even ourselves, with compassion and tip the balance in their favor.

Our Tabernacle, the place where God wants to reside, needs work. If we can steer clear of the things that might derail us, we’ll be fine. But when we can’t put it back together, we need a “master-teacher” to set it all up. May you seek that person so your Tabernacle can remain strong.

At the end of each book of Torah we shout “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazk”—

“Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.”

May we also know when we need outside help.

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