This week’s Torah portion is a double dose of wisdom. We read both Vayakhel and Pekudei. With that, we complete the book of Exodus. In these two portions, Moses assembles the Jewish people and gives them G-d’s directions for making the mishkan, or tabernacle. At the outset, Moses reminds them of the commandment to observe Shabbat. For the task of building the mishkan is great, but it cannot be completed without taking time to rest. The people donate the necessary materials to build the mishkan. They bring gold, silver, and bronze metal and indigo, purple, and crimson linens. They bring ram skins to make into a covering for the tent and acacia wood to craft into panels for the mishkan. They bring oil for light and spices for anointing oil. In fact, the people bring so many riches to donate to the mishkan that Moses has to tell them to stop giving. Their generosity is overflowing. Moses tells the Israelites that the work of constructing the mishkan will be done by people filled with heart’s wisdom to do every task of carver and designer and embroiderer and weaver. G-d has given them wisdom and understanding to know how to do this holy work. Then we read in great detail how the mishkan is constructed. After it is complete, Moses erects it and places the Covenant within it. G-d’s presence in the form of the cloud covers the mishkan and it becomes G-d’s dwelling place in the midst of the people.
Within this week’s portion, I was struck that an entire chapter of Exodus was devoted to the clothing of the priests. We read all about the crafting of the garments Aaron and his sons will wear to serve in the sanctuary. All are made with interwoven strands of gold, indigo, purple, and crimson linen. Stones of ruby, topaz, turquoise, sapphire, and amethyst are set into their breastplates. The hem of their robes are embroidered with pomegranates and adorned with bells of pure gold. The craftsmen bring the same meticulousness that they brought to the construction of the mishkan itself to the fashioning of the garments to wear during divine service.
How important are the clothes we wear while doing important work? I was raised in a household that scorned vanity. My family guarded ourselves against what we saw as the excesses of beauty culture where we lived in Southern California. My decision at sixteen to stop shaving my legs was a conscious act of non-conformity with powerful beauty norms. So I am somewhat resistant to the focus on apparel I read in this week’s Torah portion.
My work is in campaigning for progressive policy change at the national level, and I must lobby elected officials, meet with powerful coalition partners, and interact with members of the media. Here too, I am sometimes frustrated by the amount of attention paid to dress, and I must admit I judge the women on the Hill who wear pearls. However, I do recognize that in order to be taken seriously, I must dress the part, and thus I own my fair share of suits. Just as appearance matters in today’s political realm, in the Rabbinic period, the criteria for selecting members of the Sanhedrin or city council, according to the Talmud, was stature, wisdom, good appearance, and mature age. This week’s Torah portion teaches that if we are to engage in holy work, we must pay attention to our appearance while doing the holy tasks. If I take my social justice mission seriously, I must dress impeccably.
Also contained in this week’s portion is the fact that the women brought their mirrors to donate to the construction of the mishkan. They brought an item that is often a tool of vanity or pride to create a container of divine presence. While this week’s portion teaches that taking care in our appearance honors the dignity of holy work, we mustn’t confuse our respect for the work with pride in our appearance. Attention to our physical presentation is appropriate, obsession is not.
Ultimately, I believe Judaism is far more concerned with how we behave in the world — with the condition of our souls — than with our clothing. Perkei Avot, the wisdom of our fathers, reminds us to look not just at the vessel, but rather what is inside.
My kavanah, or intention, for this week is for us to hold two contradictory intentions. First, the intention to take our holy work in the world seriously and, in so doing, take our bodies and the garments that clothe them seriously. And second, the intention to transform our mirrors from a tool of vanity or pride into an instrument that can prepare us for a divine encounter.