Construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, is the main subject of Vayakhel, this week’s Torah portion. The gathering of materials, the appointment of artist/managers, the fabrication of cloth and furnishings, the dimensions of all the parts and their assembly —these are presented in great detail.
Even so — and this is a constant feature of the Tanakh — there is not enough detail. For example, we read (Exodus 36:8) that a design of cherubim was worked into the strips of cloth that were joined (sewn?) together to comprise the innermost sanctuary.
We are not told, however, what these cherubim actually looked like. We might imagine fiery angels such as those who guarded the Garden of Eden against Adam and Eve’s return. Or the elegant human-like figures with long wings depicted on the lid of the “Lost Ark” in the first Indiana Jones movie. Or the chubby winged toddlers who flit about in Italian Renaissance paintings. These cherubim — were they standing, bowing, flying? Our text gives no clue.
Almost the last item mentioned in our Torah portion (38:18) is the “screen of the gate of the enclosure”: 30 feet long, seven and a half feet high, and embroidered in blue, purple and crimson yarns with fine linen. Now we understand embroidery, and we know that it isn’t
random. It involves pattern, figure or both.
A screen is simultaneously an enticement to go beyond and an obstacle to doing so. Its function is to make us hesitate, to consider what makes the space on the other side so special — even holy — and to prepare to exist within it.
What was embroidered on that mishkan screen? The “Ten Commandments” enjoin us from depicting anything encountered in nature, but clearly the figures of cherubim were permissible. What pattern or figure would have been conducive to establish the mood of awe and receptivity in one who passed beyond the screen?
Neither you nor I can tell. So let’s ask a different question, a personal
What pattern or figure on that screen would evoke both your awe and your spiritual yearning? What would make you pause and prepare before entering a holy place?
Architects and artists have been presenting their answers to these questions for millennia. Who has not been stirred and uplifted by successful synagogue architecture and décor?
You might want to approach an answer to this question through the technique of visualization. Sometimes, for example, a meditation leader will ask that we close our eyes and visualize the letters of God’s ineffable Name, or the number 1. Your own spiritual “trigger” is likely to be something else entirely.
Let the Torah’s instruction to embroider a screen stimulate you to re-affirm or find your entrance to holiness.
And then, step beyond it.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)