This week is the portion that completes the book of Exodus and the discussion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), portable sanctuary used when the Jews wandered in the desert. It’s worth noting that the Torah enumerates all of the precious metals that went into the building of the Mishkan and lists exactly how much gold, silver, and copper were used. Being as the Mishkan was only used in the desert, before the people entered the Land of Israel, why is it necessary for all future generations of Jews to know exactly how much precious metal went int0 the construction of that structure?
The Jewish people have had only three central sanctuaries throughout our history; the Mishkan and the two Temples in Jerusalem. The amount of precious metals that went into the Mishkan paled in comparison to the wealth that went into the First Temple, which was surpassed by the lavish Second Temple, completed by the Roman ruler Herod.
Various Jewish sources detail how much gold, silver, and copper went into all three sanctuaries and note that there is an interesting phenomenon concerning them; the more gold, silver, and copper that went into a particular building, the less Divine Presence that was revealed. The Mishkan was the most humble of the three and the Divine presence appeared there more often than in the First Temple, built by King Solomon. The Second Temple was more lavish than that First but all its grandeur didn’t help with making it a more spiritual place.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, the seventeenth century Italian physician, philosopher and commentator makes the following observation:
The amount of riches and the size of the structure are not the causes of the Divine Presence to dwelling in Israel. G-d desires those who are in awe of Him and will dwell in their midst.
This idea applies all areas of life: wealth does not bring meaning or spirituality to a person’s marriage, family, friendships, relationships or anything else of significance in life. It’s so clear, yet the chaotic lives we lead sometimes cause us to forget this obvious point. An article last month in the (Sunday) New York Times illustrates how easy it is to forget this.
“In my last year on Wall Street,” the author, Sam Polk, writes, “my bonus was $3.6 million – and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”
Mr. Polk continues “Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk?” He’ll do anything – walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma – to get a fix. Wall Street was like that.” Still, no matter how much money he made, he wasn’t satisfied. “When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet.”
His incessant chase for more wealth got him second row tickets at the Knicks-Lakers game and unlimited access to New York’s finest restaurants but it never provided happiness or meaning in his life.
He wasn’t deprived, he was simply irrational. In his words, he had an “addiction.”
Eventually Sam Polk had a turning point when he realized that his immensely more wealthy boss was “afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.” He found a new life, got married, speaks in jails and juvenile detention centers about the benefits of living an addiction free life, teaches and started a nonprofit to help poor families struggling with obesity and food addiction. “I am,” he confides, “much happier.”
The amount of precious metal in a building gives it external grandeur but does little in providing happiness or meaning to its inhabitants. Versailles is magnificent but does it bring contentment to its occupants or its visitors? Wealth obviously has wonderful benefits that can be used for one’s family, community, and the greater good and it doesn’t necessarily lead one astray but only when one realizes how easy it is to be seduced by it. Quantities of gold don’t make G-d’s house any better; it’s the commitment of the people who enter. So, too, with the Jewish home-it’s only as strong as the commitment of the people who reside there. The more money, the more lavish the house will be; the more Jewish, the more Jewish the house will be. These two options aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive but it behooves all of us to ask ourselves, if we had to choose one-lavish or Jewish-which would it be? What kind of home are you building?
(Sources: Sforno, Exodus 38:24; I Kings, 6:20-35 and 7:48-50; “For the Love of Money” by Sam Polk in the New York Times, 1-18-14)