I have spent some time in my life “on the road” touring theatrical productions and touring with a band. So every time I encounter this miraculous portable mishkan, I am overwhelmed and impressed. And I respect the care and effort that went into taking down, storing and preparing the mishkan for transport. Though described in relatively few words in this part of the Torah, I imagine the task itself was rather extensive and time consuming. And done with the most exacting and painstaking attention to detail and care.
It is a model still followed. The first thing a good road manager does is to take a head count and make sure everybody in the cast and crew is accounted for. Then each “department” takes care of carefully storing their equipment – as Aaron and the priests did with the sacred objects from the mishkan. The ‘very special” (and in these days, expensive and fragile) items are wrapped, protected, placed in roadworthy cases, ready for transport. Finally the Teamsters, er, that is the Kohathites come along and carry the equipment and load it up for transport.
And just as Aaron and the priests carefully wrapped the sacred object so they wouldn’t be damaged by the Kohathites, I’ve seen plenty of musicians, costumers, property masters, et al carefully wrap, protect and store away their treasured props, costumes, instruments, etc. to protect them from being damaged or “defiled” by the handlers. Not that the “handlers” were careless or neglectful. The best “roadies” might be able to move, stack, and store heavy items quickly and efficiently, but they also do it lovingly, respectfully, and carefully. When you spend time together on the road, you learn that showing respect for the property of others is important – especially because everyone has to get along, and everyone is needed to make sure the show happens.
It’s all about caring for the things we hold sacred, holy. The concept which comes from the Hebrew meaning “to set apart.”
Are things “holy” by intrinsic nature, or does it require that we hold them in reverence to imbue them with holiness? It’s not entirely clear to me. Something touched by or created by G”d-surely that is holy. In the first category, at least in our story, we have no such items. Moshe destroyed the first set of tablets which had been written upon by G”d, and instructed Moshe to write on the second set. Curious, isn’t it? We often observe G”d’s power and miracles on a macro scale, but what do we have that’s a tangible holy object from all that.
Our Catholic co-religionists are really into holy, sacred objects. Sacred relics are built into altars. And who knows what treasures are stored in the catacombs beneath the Vatican (or, for that matter, in anonymous government warehouses here in Washington, DC.) Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have given their lives in pursuit of the Holy Grail.
Each year, millions of Muslims make a hajj, and encounter the Kaaba and other sacred places and things. Clearly, these are objects that people believe are intrinsically holy. However, in the end, we have only the faith of human beings that these objects are truly sacred and holy. There’s no real “proof.” The Shroud of Turin. That mysterious Ossuary possible bearing the inscription of James, brother of Jesus. [Remember, this was written a decade ago.]
Touched by G”d or not, we human beings have the power to make things holy (and, after all, our tradition tells us that we are a holy people, a nation of priests.) The way in which we treat things goes a long way in imbuing objects with sacredness.
Back when I lived in American Yennensvelts* my mother used to annually send me a Pesach care package full of the kind of goodies it’s hard to get in the “hinterlands west of the Hudson.” Every year when the package arrived I looked forward to the ceremony of unwrapping each little item in the box, revealing it for the treasure it was. My mother takes such great care to wrap and protect these treasures. Item,s large and small, fragile and less so, are every so carefully wrapped in layer after layer of tissue paper, newspaper, and even a few old towels or dishrags. It was done so lovingly, I didn’t dare rip things open in a hurry like a child with a present.
[*-a Yiddishism, a corruption of the term “yenne velt” which means “the other world.” It came to mean a far away place, or a place in the middle of nowhere. In my childhood, that was anyplace west of the Hudson river, as depicted in the famous New York cover by Saul Steinberg, “View of the World from 9th Avenue”)
I know that when I see a sales clerk take the time to carefully wrap and protect even the most inexpensive but fragile item, I am wont to recall parashat B’midbar. The clerk knows it may just be a trinket, but to me, or the person I intend to give it to, it must be so much more. I’ve seen florists put such care into the wrapping of a single rose, as if they were wrapping up dozens of these precious flowers. It mattered not to the florist that I could only afford the one flower instead of the bouquet. They knew it was special to me, and to the eventual recipient.
And that is how we make things sacred and holy. Not by their being. Not by their having been invested with holiness by Divine action or even human ritual.
It is through the care we show for them, and the way we treat them, that things become holy.
Some years back, I had the pleasure of seeing the 1st graders I had taught all year demonstrate the davening skills they have acquired, and receive their first real siddur. Each siddur was lovingly wrapped and adorned by a cover created by each student’s parents. While I knew that each of the students understood the holy and sacred nature of these siddurim, even without the fancy covers, the covers were a demonstration of the value being placed in these books that are more than books. Yet, even without these fancy covers, I know the students will treat their siddurim with respect, not just shoving them in their desks or casually tossing them about, because they have been taught respect for the content. I know that they understand that it is through their reverence for the physical book, and for the words it contains, that they imbue it with holiness. Some might argue that the words themselves are holy. It’s hard to argue that they aren’t. But if we don’t see them as such, does it matter if they are?
[5777 Now I’m going to sound like an old curmudgeon. Sixteen years have passed since that experience. While I still find students holding their siddurim and chumashim with reverence, I am saddened I see less and less of it. This applies not only to books, but to places. I can’t blame the students. Somehow we adults have failed to convey the message. One might attribute the problem to a certain lack of decorum, or a failure of discipline, but I ask – if we have to discipline our students into showing reverence for our holy books and holy spaces, is that success? Holiness comes from within. We need to enable our students to develop a genuine respect and love for the things we hope they will endow with holiness. Yes, maybe we can force students to treat things with respect, but I do not believe we can force them to view anything as holy that they, themselves, do not internalize as holy.]
A midrash teaches that G”d “shopped the Torah around” and we Jews were the only ones who agreed to accept it (though perhaps under duress or threat!)
Without that acceptance, even written by G”d, they are just words on a scroll. We make it holy-in what we do, what we say, how we do it, how we say it, how we treat it.
Yes, a scribe, taking great care, inscribed the holy words of the Torah upon these sheepskin rolls. That effort alone ought to be enough to make each sefer Torah a holy object. Yet these objects are routinely bought and sold. The Nazis thought nothing of destroying them, or using them for wallpaper or decoupage. A shanda, to be sure, but to them, they weren’t holy. We make them holy. Our commitment to those words, to the values they teach, the obligations they command us to perform. And the care and reverence with which we treat the actual physical object itself. Though it sometimes appears to border on a form of idol worship (and that’s a discussion for another time) we show great respect for a sefer Torah through the way we handle it, carefully wrapping and unwrapping it, marching it around, kissing it, standing in its presence, reading its sacred words, placing it lovingly in the aron, etc. We make it holy. Without any of this, it’s just a rolled-up scroll. Something the congregation purchased, and something that a scribe labored on to create. Are we bowing and respecting the scribe? The person or company who sold it to us? Hardly. We make it holy. Without us, it is just ink on sheepskin.
[5777 – As I was reading through my many musings on this parasha, I was struck by a connection I had never thought about before. One of my other musings, Doorway to Hope about the haftarah for B’midbar, which comes from Hoshea, attempts, as I so often to, to redeem a seemingly irredeemable bit of text. It occurred to me that the nature of holiness, and our ability to imbue texts and things with it may be another pathway to dealing with difficult pieces of our sacred texts. I’ve little doubt that Hoshea had a holy purpose in mind even when writing some such rhetoric. While this doesn’t completely redeem some of the rhetoric for me, it allows me to afford even these texts a place of reverence.]
This Shabbat, find something you want to make sacred, holy. Wrap it carefully, whether metaphorically or not, as you choose. Know that you have the power to make something holy and sacred. You can even make the place where you are holy just by your presence in it. Always remember this. But remember, too, the cautions of our Torah about what to imbue and not imbue with this special holiness. It might be a place, a thing, a thought, a space, an idea, an action. whatever it is, you can make it holy. Make it so.
Shabbat Shalom, and have a cheesy Shavuot!
©2017 (portions ©2001 and ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
B’midbar 5775 – The Reward At The End Of The Boring?
B’midbar 5774 – Torah as Anecdote-It’s a Good Thing
B’midbar 5773 – Who Really Provides?
B’mdibar 5771 – Moving Treasures
B’midbar 5770 – Sense Us
B’midbar 5769 – That V’eirastikh Li Feeling
B’midbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
B’midbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
B’midbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
B’midbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
B’midbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
B’midbar 5760-Knowing Our Place