My living room is incredibly plain – white walls, one big painting, no tchotchkes – sofas, table and chairs, piano, cupboards. We still don’t have curtains (after about 8 years) because I’ve never felt an urgent desire to sort them out. We live there of course, me and my family. But we also host community events and I hold lots of meetings with congregants there. I regard my house as a backdrop to all sorts of exciting dramas. I don’t particularly see it as a means of self-expression. I appreciate the space but try not to feel attached to it. That’s why it’s quite plain. Leonard Cohen speaks about the “voluptuousness of austerity” – there’s something very enjoyable about empty space and I sometimes wish I owned even less so I could enjoy an even emptier space.
This kind of non-attachment is something I try to cultivate. I try not to always sit in the same place in synagogue or in my classes at college – the places I spend a lot of time in. Sitting in different places – I hope – encourages me to be flexible, to appreciate different points of view and discourages me from becoming too attached to things.
What did our Israelite ancestors have? If you look at the list of materials that they contributed to furnish the Mishkan at the beginning of this week’s portion – gold, silver, copper, ram skins, dophin skins(!) and acacia wood – you would think they have been carrying around a lot of non-essentials. Several midrashim attempt to explain where they got these materials from, claiming for example that the precious metals were spoils they took in lieu of payment from their Egyptian slave-masters. Or that Jacob planted acacia trees decades earlier on his travels so they would be available to his descendants when they needed them for this building project….
If however, you reconstruct the Mishkan from the accounts that describe it, it appears pretty spartan. There was a large Outer Courtyard marked out by a perimeter of walls made of wooden struts and lengths of skin and fabric. This is mostly empty for other than an altar for offerings and a basin. Inside that is the Tent of Meeting furnished with a table (for the shewbread), the altar (for incense), and the lamp. And finally within that, the Holy of Holies containing just the Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of the Law inside it.
All of this was built according to a tavnit, which means a construction, pattern, figure or plan. (Ex 25:40). The root of the word tavnit is b-n-h, to build. Elsewhere in Torah the term appears in Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot, and it is also used in Deuteronomy to describe idolatrous images that people should not build or worship. So tavnit can be both good and bad – a blueprint for a shrine, or for an idol. But more intriguing still is the question of whether tavnit refers to something that concretely exists or not. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna suggests that the term “usually refers to the imitative reproduction of a material entity that exists in reality”, but he admits that with regard to the Mishkan it might be about “the ideal, invisible, archetypal form that is present in the mind of God and that is made manifest to Moses.” In other words – the Mishkan is not a representation of a holy place, it is rather a representation of the idea of holy space.
Usually in the ancient world, a shrine or temple would mark the site where something happened or where a particular deity resided. The innovation with the Mishkan was that it was not installed in a specific location but was rather “a living extension of Mt Sinai” which would travel with the camp. The Biblical account, observes Sarna, uses the terms mishkan and ohel to emphasize the mobile nature of the shrine. Shakan, he points out, means “to tent” making the point that the Mishkan is not portable only for practical reasons, but also because God’s presence is ubiquitous and not confined to one space.
Of course, it’s a fantasy and a luxury for me to cultivate non-attachment to my home. I am fortunate to have a safe home and never to have been driven from it. Nevertheless, and maybe naively, I cling to this idea that what is truly precious does not reside in bricks and mortar, but exists in the form of a tavnit, a the idea of home. As with the Mishkan, what is essential is not the structure, but the spirit that fills it.
Zahavit Shalev LBC Rabbinic student