D’var Torah: Parashat Pekudei
Rabbi Michael Silbert
March 9, 2019 / ב׳ אדר-ב תשע״ט
In 2006, author Rich Cohen wrote “Sweet and Low: A Family Story” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). A central detail of the book is that his grandfather, Ben, invented “Sweet and Low”, the sugar alternative, thereby amassing a huge fortune. Also central is another detail: Rich’s mother, Ellen, and all of her children were disinherited.
In the book, Cohen describes his grandfather’s invention as a “dark parable of the American dream”, and how ultimately, to be “disinherited was to be set free”.
One of the subjects of Cohen’s pain is his grandma, Betty, who, by the way, had her name legally changed from Bessie. Grandma Betty outlived her husband and her final will and testament reads:
“I hereby record that I have made no provision under this will for my daughter Ellen and any of Ellen’s issue, for reasons I deem sufficient.”
If you’re interested, read the book yourselves to find out what her reasons were.
A striking point that I still remember from listening to a radio interview with Cohen when the book first came out back in 2006, is that love was in limited supply in that family. The author’s mother, Ellen, and her siblings were constantly fighting for the blessing and the love of their parents.
He describes how Ellen and her father, Grandpa Ben, had a particularly close relationship and how this made grandma Betty insanely jealous, because her operating belief in this world was that there is a finite amount of love – there is only so much of it to go around – and therefore any single relationship within a family has the capacity to consume all the love and not leave enough for the others.
We shake our heads in sadness, or gasp or even laugh nervously. Maybe it reminds us of someone we know. It’s not so much that this notion seems preposterous; it’s more that it seems so tragic, so sad, so very limited in and of itself.
My hope, my wish, my blessing for all of us is the knowledge of just how wrong this notion is. And I don’t mean to say this in a judgmental way, but rather as a statement of fact: that this notion is incorrect.
Ideally, all of us have experienced that love is not a finite article like e.g. rice, which disappears as one consumes it. Instead, the more love we put into the world, ideally, the more love we get back. It’s self-perpetuating, self-multiplying, for lack of a better word. And that, ironically, is what makes it so special: it doesn’t have a high value because it is in limited supply; rather, its ability to increase and flow into every crack like water, just by trying, sometimes with only a smile, is what gives it a divine quality.
As the construction of the tabernacle approaches completion, the Ark of the Covenant is set in its place and is screened off with a curtain. The table, all its utensils and the lampstand are brought in, and the gold altar is put in position right by the Ark of the Covenant, separated only by the curtain between them. The parashah is almost an interior decorating or even a curation guide, as it specifies what furnishings and accessories are needed, and where they are to be placed. All the items of the Tabernacle are then to be anointed with oil in order to consecrate them and to make them holy, and God instructs: “Anoint the altar of burnt offering…so that the altar shall be most holy.” [Ex. 40:11]
The Ramban, a famous 13 century biblical scholar in Spain, explained what this means, that “The altar shall be most holy.” He writes:
“Literally, (this is the) ‘holy of holies’ (as) the most holy sacrifices were offered upon it. Note,” he writes, “that the Tabernacle itself is merely ‘holy’ [Ex. 40:9], but the only place in the Tabernacle that was ‘most holy’ was the place of the Ark (with the altar right next to it, just on the other side of the curtain.)”
The Ramban adds:
“It may be that the altar was part of the ‘holy of holies’ because it had the power to make other things holy, for as is written in Ex. 29:37: ‘whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated.’”
So, in the midst of all these decorating instructions and the positioning, unwrapping and initiation of all the brand-new furniture and accessories, there seems to be something almost magical about the altar: unlike anything else, it uniquely has the capacity to transfer its own core quality. Instead of its holiness being diminished with use, it increases; it multiplies and imparts its energy in the world to anything that comes in contact with it. And this energy is holiness.
The altar seems to offer a point of transformation from ordinary to sacred with its Midas touch, as anything that touches it takes on its properties and becomes one with what lies just behind the curtain: the Ark of the Covenant and with God’s presence which has settled in the tent.
The contrast between the altar and the throw-away nature of most items we come in contact with today, is stark. Almost everything we encounter has limited use, a limited lifespan. But that which has an energy of its own, which increases the more we engage with it, such as the altar, is truly different to everything else we know and experience.
Love too. Love is infinite and has the power to multiply every time we express it and put it into the world, and therefore is quite distinct; it is קָדוֹש / kadosh, it is holy. Love is God flowing through us and the more we give it away, the more we have to give. Love is our holy of holies, because it has the power to transfer itself, to multiply, to be passed on and thereby to increase itself.
May each and every one of us know and experience what it is to live in a world where we are not afraid to express love, to give it away; if necessary trying, risking, again and again and again until we see it flourish, taking on a life of its own.
Out of Athens, Georgia, The Indigo Girls acknowledged the perils yet conceded the inevitable reward of giving love: “Though it’s storming out I feel safe within the arms of love’s discovery.”
“For whatever touches the altar shall itself become holy” [Ex. 29:37]