Since my mother passed away nine months ago, one of the most difficult and painful experiences has been going through the content of her house: deciding what to keep and what to give away, or sadly, to throw away. In some cases, the decision has been easy. I kept the photos of my grandparents and my parents, their birth certificates, their marriage certificate. My mum’s watch, the watch she is wearing in the photo of her holding me in her arms, when I was a baby only a few days old, that has now started working again. My mother no longer wears it, her daughter wears it. But then there are the everyday objects: plates, glasses, tablecloths and napkins, bed sheets, towels. Each of these objects tells a story, but some of them bring back special memories. The tablecloth, cutlery and glasses that my mother carefully arranged on the festival table when friends and family gathered around it. The beach towel I used to lie on as a child during my summer holidays with my grandmother. And then again, my mother’s clothes. In the back of the wardrobe, one of her jumpers. I find myself sobbing like a child as I relive the memories of the times when my mother used to wear it, in our house in the mountains, the snow outside and the warmth of the stove inside: our games, laughter and chatting. Among millions of jumpers, my mother’s stands out from the background, and even more so that single jumper becomes special, distinct, separate from the others; it becomes ‘heqdesh‘ or holy, for me.
Similarly, the objects donated by the Israelites for the construction of the Sanctuary are both everyday objects and objects dedicated to a specific purpose. Men and women bring their offerings to give God a residence, a home. Moses tells them that this is how the Eternal has commanded: ‘Take from among you gifts to the Eternal; everyone whose mind is willing to shall bring offerings to the Eternal: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.’ (Ex 35:5-9). And further we read: ‘Men and women, all whose heart moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the Eternal, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants, gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who possessed blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for the Eternal; and everyone who possessed acacia wood for any work of the service brought that.’ (Ex 35:22-24). The list of offerings is repeated in every detail, because the objects that belonged to the Israelites for their daily use had now become special. They were given for a specific purpose. They had acquired a new meaning. Yet they still remained common objects that would be used to craft vessels and utensils, because God’s home, as any other house, has furniture and vessels: a tent, a table with bread, a lamp, tongs and shovels, a basin, the altar’s utensils for maintaining its fire and removing its ashes. Things that could be found in an Israelite’s house, are here crafted in a special way and used by priests during the daily rituals in the Sanctuary. If God’s house is suitable for Him, He will descend from His highest residence to dwell near the people of Israel, amongst them. It’s not by chance, in fact, that the Hebrew word qorban for sacrifice – or offering – comes from a root whose meaning is ‘being near’.
Since my mother died nine months ago, one of her tablecloths has become my Shabbat dinner tablecloth and one of my grandmother’s glasses has become my Kiddush cup. But being a Italian student rabbi who travels quite often, I frequently found myself spending Shabbat in hotel rooms. A tea candle, brought from home in my backpack, has become my Shabbat’s ner, a glass sitting on the room’s console my Kiddush cup. Not anyone’s first choice, to be sure. But isn’t it what we do in Judaism with our rituals every week, every day? We bless God over our daily meals, over bread and wine, we light candles, we use cloves as a spice during Havdalah, a piece of cloth becomes our tallit. The principle of embellishing the mitzvah makes us choose, whenever we can, beautiful objects or tastier food, nevertheless what we use in our rituals still remains a daily use object, that ceased to be hol – common or everyday, in order to become kodesh – distinct.
Through our rituals we try to bring God near to us, among us again, maybe even just for the moment of a blessing. Judaism doesn’t aim to bring humankind near to God. Its aim is to bring God near to humankind, to bring His Kedushah into our lives. The worst curse for us is to spend our lives with the feeling that everything is the same: minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, that nothing is distinct, matters or makes a difference. Spending our lives without special moments to live, special meals to share or without the bittersweet memories of of our beloved. We can build everyday little sanctuaries and hope that God will dwell in them, making people, time and objects special. May our lives be enriched by those remarkable impalpable sanctuaries, like the lives of the people of Israel were enriched by the actual presence of the mishkan. Shabbat Shalom.
Martina Loreggian LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.