Three Thoughts on Parshat Pekudei: Leadership, Labor, Art

Ester Meir Horvitz is a Rosh Midrasha at OTS’s ‘HaMidrasha HaYisraelit’

%D7%9E%D7%90%D7%99%D7%A8 %D7%94%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%99%D7%A5 e1710066259839In Parshat Pekudei, we delve further into the intricate construction of the Tabernacle. In these chapters that conclude the Book of Shemot, a profound question arises: How does a book that opens with a genocide, then proceeds to relate an incredible narrative of redemption and freedom; goes on to paint a vivid picture of breathtaking miracles; inspires the readers with Moshe’s outstanding leadership capabilities; relates the monumental event of the giving of the Torah with its laws and statutes, culminating in the intense drama of the shattering of the Tablets of God – how does such a remarkable account of extraordinary events conclude with an inventory, detailing the items and utensils of the Tabernacle, ending in a manner akin to a financial report? Why does such a powerful book conclude with an inventory?

What significance is held by this inventory, spanning chapters 38 through 40, that demands our careful attention?  Here are three reflections on why this portion is as significant as the earlier chapters of the Book of Shemot:

  1. Transparency and integrity
  2. In praise of labor
  3. The importance of Art

First Reflection:

Moshe meticulously accounts for every shekel collected from the community, exemplifying leadership rooted in transparency and integrity. This attention to detail underscores the responsible utilization of public funds. Furthermore, while these chapters detail the construction of the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Divine, they highlight a profound paradox: God’s presence permeates even the minutiae, every numerical calculation, and meticulous detail. In light of recent local elections, let us offer a prayer for leaders who govern with the same integrity and transparency as Moshe demonstrated in this week’s portion.

Second Reflection:

Meir Ariel, in his song “The Song of Labor,” eloquently captures the essence of these portions. He eagerly anticipates observing the craftsmen engaged in building the Tabernacle.

“Take me to the tents of Israel, to the mountain high,
To witness this labor, ‘neath the desert sky –
Where the wanderers dwell, in their transient abode,
I’ll wander, I’ll ponder, where labor’s scent is stowed,
‘Neath the desert sky, where labor’s scent is stowed.
(…)
I’ll join the craftsmen, who fashion and shape,
The vessels and trinkets, that gleam and drape,
And then pour the molten, with fervor and heat,
Into copper and silver, and gold pure and sweet,
With fervor and heat, into gold pure and sweet.”

Ariel, raised and educated in the kibbutz movement, grew up on the ethos of labor as the essence of life. As he wanders and observes the laborers and craftsmen, he wonders if all workers receive the same “airtime”:

“And here I muse in thought and in rhyme,
On the essence of labor, in space and in time,
Do all get their share, in the broadcast of life,
Or just those who paint, amidst struggle and strife,
In the broadcast of life, amidst struggle and strife?”

He cannot help but ponder his occupation, sitting and writing his words and playing his instrument, wondering about the meaning of his occupation in the world[1].

I will add that after the first reflection on leadership that must account for its use of public funds, it is also appropriate to dedicate a few verses to the work of the craftsmen.  Behind the actions are people who perform their work in good faith and with much love.

Third Reflection:

In the concluding chapters of the Book of Shemot, as the people have achieved freedom and the laws have been established, there emerges a sense of security that fosters artistic expression and creation. This phenomenon echoes the early days of the Zionist movement, when figures like Martin Buber advocated for the fusion of Art and Judaism to catalyze the revitalization of the Jewish people. In fact, in one of the Zionist Congresses, Buber called for the “Joining of Hands”, referring to the said synthesis of Art and Judaism.  And, indeed, Art plays a pivotal role in nation-building, as exemplified in the Book of Shemot and the early Zionist endeavors.

Muki Tzur, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gev, poses a crucial question: What distinguishes renewed Jewish Art from Avoda Zarah, idolatry? He draws a parallel to Remembrance Day in Israel to shed light on this distinction.  He writes as follows: “What is the difference between Avodah Zarah and renewed Jewish Art? Remembrance Day in Israel teaches us the difference. How do we ensure that Remembrance Day does not turn into the celebration of Death, but preserves life and our commitment to it? In all ceremonies and upon all tombstones, in all elegies and sermons, we must protect that thin thread that separates the sacred from the mundane; distinguishes between life and the sacrifices of life; differentiates between loyalty to our children and the sacrifice of children; discerns between Avodah [“labor”] and Avodah Zarah [“idolatry”]. In this chapter in the Book of Shemot, we build an altar. However, those who hold onto the altar are only those who hold onto life.[2]

As we conclude our journey through the Book of Shemot, let us pray for leaders who embody integrity and transparency, who honor and sanctify life, and who possess the wisdom to distinguish between true Art and idolatry.

[1] David Peretz, 929  https://www.929.org.il/page/88/post/2360

[2] Muki Tzur 929, https://www.929.org.il/page/88/post/2328

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