Wednesday, 19 Feb 2014

Written by Hannah Kingston

Recently on Facebook there was a video posted by a friend of mine with the caption, ‘because who is perfect?’ Intrigued and with time to spare I clicked on the link to watch the video and what I saw brought tears to my eyes. A campaign in Zurich for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities created by Pro Infirmis, an organisation for the disabled, saw shopping centre mannequins being fashioned with the bodies of those with brittle bone disease, scoliosis, missing limbs and a malformed spine. These were then placed in shop windows alongside the regular ‘perfect’ mannequins we are so used to, slender women and men with muscular physiques.

The campaign was designed to encourage acceptance of those with physical disabilities into our communities, but I tend to feel it does more. Although many of us do not have physical abnormalities to the same degree as these mannequins, I believe that many of us would relate to being far from ‘perfect’. Perhaps this scheme gives us a lens through which to embrace and be proud of our imperfections.  Perhaps from this it allows us to take a step back from being stuck in our aesthetic world and to realise that we are not so different from those who surround us.
Although at first glance it would appear that the spiritual Judaism practiced today would be in favour of the idea of being less rooted and concerned with the physical, when tracing back to the Torah it seems that this was not the case. Throughout our biblical narrative various things are described by their physical merits. Take for example the matriarchs who are often defined by their beauty. One only needs to look as far as the story of Jacob, a man so driven by aesthetics that he clearly loves Rachel and disregards Leah, purely due to their comparative attractiveness.

It seems that once again in this week’s Parashah we are in a world deeply rooted in physicality and aesthetics. In Parashat Vayakhel we revisit the building of the Mishkan, the details of which we first encountered three weeks ago in Parashat Terumah. We hear again of the gold, silver, copper, expensive linens and so on that were used to create this holy dwelling place. The narrative appears almost identical to the verses previously heard, both stories about the creation of a stunning home for God to be carried with the Israelites, a concept not designed by the people themselves but instead by God, a God who seems so concerned at this point with physicality.

The ancient sages of the Talmud tell us that no word in Torah is superfluous. So why is it necessary once again to return to the gritty details of the building of the Mishkan, including the vast quantity of luxurious materials needed to construct this Holy Place?

Perhaps this parashah is asking us to take step back to see the entire concept of the building of the Mishkan, just like viewing the mannequins in a shop window, in order to realise that the act of building of the Tabernacle isn’t actually about the aesthetics of the Mishkan and instead about something deeper. The name of the parashah, Vayakhel, is the first thing that hints towards this slightly obscured meaning. The word Vayakhel is a verb formed from the word kahal meaning community. Hence the name of our parashah can be literally translated as, ‘And He made a community’. Maybe the building of the Mishkan was part of a wider plan.

Could it be that potentially the aim of the beautiful Mishkan was in fact exactly this, to create a community? The parashah teaches us that a community is more than just a group of people; it is created by the act of working together towards a common goal, whether it be the creation of a physical Mishkan or the acceptance of people within society, the work of a community is sacred and holy.

Truly working together in community should mean that each person is valued for their individual merits and plays an integral part in achieving the task at hand. Hence in the parashah we do not hear that each person was commanded to bring the same, meaning those less able to bring were excluded, just that everyone brought what they could afford. Each individual’s contribution was valued the same, whether gold or acacia wood, because the act of donating in order to help form a community is viewed as more important than the physical value of material belongings.

In Mishnah Avot 2:4 Hillel instructs us: ‘Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur’ – do not separate yourself from the community!” Maybe Judaism is not actually a religion based on physical beauty but instead a religion devoted to community. In the same way that the creation of mannequins in all shapes and sizes gives us a way to see ourselves as imperfect beings not so different from anyone else in society, the building of a beautiful Mishkan brought the community together, with everyone bringing what they could in order to create something holy.

Creating community means leaving discriminations and judgements behind and learning to appreciate everyone for what they can bring. Each of us has something unique to offer. By embracing our communities we can discover what that thing is. It is only when we learn to accept everyone, despite our differences, whether physical or emotional, that a safe community can be built. And it is then that true holiness can be brought into our everyday activities. 

Hannah Kingston LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.