Building and Rebuilding the Tabernacle

Ever watch a child learning to walk? While strolling along confidently, albeit a bit wobbly, he’ll suddenly drop to the floor. With admirable persistence, he’ll usually pick himself right back up on his feet and continue on as if nothing had happened.

The Midrash (Tanchuma 11) says that throughout the seven inaugural days of the Holy Tabernacle, the portable dwelling place built for G-d’s Holy Presence, Moses would construct and disassemble it two or three times each day. The Tabernacle, of course, was a large and extremely heavy structure. Many of its parts were solid wood and gold, and it was tens of feet high. To build and dismantle the entire structure 14 times, or more, in one week must have been incredibly taxing to Moses! Why didn’t he just assemble it the first day, and then leave it standing until the next time G-d instructed the nation to travel?

There was a deeper meaning, however, to the construction of the Tabernacle, corresponding to the efforts of a person committed to spiritual growth. That person drafts a model of holiness, an ideal setting for rising above material and selfish pursuits, insuring the appropriate goals and safeguards are set. As he takes his first few steps of growth, he feels a sense of pride and serenity, assuring himself that he’s on the proper course. But soon, it all crumbles. The habits of the past return, and his best-laid plans for the future appear unattainable.

The continuous building and dismantling of the Tabernacle throughout the inauguration tells us that holy structures are designed to be built and rebuilt before they are completed. The nature of spiritual growth is to move forward and fall back, repeatedly, akin to the toddler’s efforts to walk. Although a toddler first falls immediately, after just a few steps, his strength, balance, and ability improve exponentially. Don’t be afraid when experiencing setbacks on the road to spiritual growth, because we are promised that the results will come — if we get right back up and keep trying!

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org
“Pick Yourself Up, Brush Yourself Off”
Commentary on Torah Portion VayakhelPekudei
Based on Nesivos Shalom, Pikudei, 279
ProjectGenesis.org

In keeping with my previous blog posts based on Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s A Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series, I read the next installment in sequence, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder prior to writing this “morning meditation”. Unfortunately, the “Jacob’s Ladder” piece just didn’t inspire me as I had hoped. However, Rabbi Dixler’s commentary did.

Here I am, still sitting at the bottom of the dark, dusty abyss, looking at the ladder that has been placed before me by God, as an invitation to a dance, so to speak. As Rabbi Freeman commented in his Jacob’s Ladder article, What was that ladder? According to the Zohar, it’s the ladder of prayer. That’s what I thought when I wrote another of my morning mediations as well. But then how do I climb?

That reminds me of an old joke:

A tourist from an Iowa farm decides to visit New York City. He’s having fun seeing the sights, visiting the Statue of Liberty, stopping off at Times Square and such, but he’s bought a ticket for a Broadway play and it starts in an hour. Trouble is, he doesn’t know how to find where the play is going to be performed.

He stops a person who appears to be a local and asks, “How do I get to Broadway.”

The gruff New Yorker replies, “Practice.”

How do you climb the ladder of prayer? The answer is the same. Practice.

I know I’ve said something like this before but it can use repeating, which is also part of practicing.

Look at Rabbi Dixler’s story again. In a way, Moses needed the “practice” in putting up and taking down “holiness.” Chances are, the story isn’t literally true, but it is a metaphor that communicates something important to me. In fact, here’s the part that especially speaks to me.

There was a deeper meaning, however, to the construction of the Tabernacle, corresponding to the efforts of a person committed to spiritual growth. That person drafts a model of holiness, an ideal setting for rising above material and selfish pursuits, insuring the appropriate goals and safeguards are set. As he takes his first few steps of growth, he feels a sense of pride and serenity, assuring himself that he’s on the proper course. But soon, it all crumbles. The habits of the past return, and his best-laid plans for the future appear unattainable.

I have better days and worse days, probably just like everyone else. I have better days and worse days in relation to God, too. Sometimes reading the Bible is very uplifting and other times, the messages I read carry nothing but discouragement. The trick for me, in having fallen down again, is figuring out a way to keep discouragement from having the last word.

The nature of spiritual growth is to move forward and fall back, repeatedly, akin to the toddler’s efforts to walk. Although a toddler first falls immediately, after just a few steps, his strength, balance, and ability improve exponentially. Don’t be afraid when experiencing setbacks on the road to spiritual growth, because we are promised that the results will come — if we get right back up and keep trying!

Why does a toddler, who falls down more times than we can count, continue getting back up? Why does the child, who falls, and falls, and falls, keep trying to walk again? Why doesn’t he get to the point of saying, “I’ll never be able to walk,” and then just keep on crawling as a means of locomotion?

I don’t know.

I suppose there’s something built into every child, a sort of developmental “map,” that drives the boy or girl to keep on trying to walk, keep on building blocks, keep on learning their ABCs, keep on trying to read, to write, to count, to dress themselves, to reach a little higher, then a little higher, then a little higher…

You get the idea. If little kids gave up anytime something was difficult, they’d never develop, become bigger, more sophisticated kids, then teens, and finally adults. They’d always be stuck at being toddlers.

Somewhere along the line, we learn that it’s possible to give up. For most of us, that doesn’t prevent us from hitting all of the usual developmental milestones. Most of us keep on trying and today, we’re able to walk, talk, write, read, count, get dressed, feed ourselves, even drive, get a job, have friends, get married, and raise children of our own. But we also learn we can give up on things and sometimes we do. Some of us learn that we can have a relationship with God and other people give up without even trying, “reasoning” that God doesn’t exist.

I think we have a “developmental need” to seek out God, even as we have developmental needs to learn to walk, feed ourselves, and read. All of those developmental milestones I listed require enormous amounts of practice and the more we practice, the better we get at mastering those skills. The more you read (usually), the better reader you become. The same goes for driving a car, fixing a leaky faucet, or playing a musical instrument (it should be noted though, that some people can practice certain skills forever and still not get very good at them).

But while most of us won’t become world-famous classical guitarists, unless we have a significant disability, we will all learn how to walk, talk, read, count, eat, and get dressed, because (unlike playing a musical instrument or performing heart surgery) they are all basic human skills. But they still all take lots of practice. Is having a relationship with God a basic (rather than an advanced) human skill?

I think so. But it’s one that we are able to abandon even before we ever learn it. Even after learning the basic steps of that relationship, we can still lose skills through lack of practice or lack of confidence. We may at one point have climbed the ladder well and then later, for whatever reason, find we are even afraid of trying. Maybe we fell off the ladder and got hurt. Maybe we failed at some other related skill and we don’t have the nerve to face the ladder again.

So here I sit at the bottom of the well, looking at the first rung of the ladder. Perhaps I fell off the ladder or maybe I never started to climb in the first place. Regardless, here I am, like a toddler who tried to walk and landed on his butt. According to Rabbi Dixler, I need to stand and fall and stand and fall, like Moses building and unbuilding the Mishkan, hour after hour, day after day, until I can stand a little longer, walk a little further, and climb the first rung of the ladder.

Don’t be afraid when experiencing setbacks on the road to spiritual growth, because we are promised that the results will come.

PrayingThe mystical aspects of Jewish prayer are enormously complex and well beyond my limited comprehension and abilities. I’m still trying to climb onto the first rung of the ladder and not become discouraged when I fall back off. But just like a toddler learning how to walk, it’s not something someone else can teach me or even help me with. You can’t walk for someone else, they have to learn it on their own.

But after everything I just said about being able to pray and to forge a relationship with God being a “basic human skill” that anyone can learn, why do I still doubt that I’m ever going to be any good at it? Maybe I’ve just been “plain old me” for too long, sitting here staring at the ladder. It goes up awfully high…and you know what happened to Icarus.

Getting to where you need to be is an important step. But nothing is as important as getting out of where you’re at right now.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hit the Road”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

He erected the Courtyard all around the Tabernacle and the Altar, and he emplaced the curtain of the gate of the Courtyard. So Moses completed the work.

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Tabernacle. –Exodus 40:33-34 (Stone Edition Chumash)

May it ever be so for you…and for me.

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