It became clear to me when I saw the hole in the wooden table. While visiting the New Museum downtown on Bowery this week, a museum which features contemporary art, I saw one work called Scratching the Table Surface and Something More. And that’s what it was – a table with a hole scratched into it. But when I saw it, I understood something more.
This morning’s Torah reading, Vayakhel and Pekudei, essentially repeat two earlier sections, Terumah and Tetzaveh: they contain a description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its vessels and the priestly garments, and many have wondered why. Some note a difference in order: in the first blueprint, the vessels come first, and the structure only later, while in this morning’s floor plan, the structure is primary, and the vessels follow. Certainly after last week’s golden calf debacle, the Jews are beginning to understand that context is what makes one golden vessel a vehicle for Divine worship, and another such vessel simple idolatry. Others offer this week’s portion as a re-start button. While God had promised to dwell in the midst of the nation before the golden calf incident, God must reassure the people in its aftermath with a repeat performance.
But the hole in the table tells a different story: it emphasizes process. As it happens, the hole was made by a man scratching the table with his fingernail for several moments each day over the course of two years. How it was made – rather than what it actually is – defines the piece (which is consistent with the goals of contemporary art in general). In stark contrast to last week’s portion, where Aharon claims – ואשליכהו באש ויצא העגל הזה- “I’m not sure what happened, how the golden calf was formed. I just threw the gold into the fire and, poof, out came this golden calf” – this week’s building of the Tabernacle is anything but haphazard. If Terumah/Tetzaveh tell us the what of the Tabernacle – what its dimensions should be, which materials are to be used, etc., this week, we learn about the process – how it was made – who got involved, who donated the materials, who fashioned the objects and using what talents.
The key term that appears over and over again to illustrate the process of creating the Tabernacle universe is thought – לחשוב, to think. The narrative uses it over ten times in various forms: מעשה חושב, לחשוב מחשבות, חושבי מחשבות and more. In fact, this week’s portion yields the term מלאכת מחשבת (melekhet machshevet), literally “thoughtful labor.” In explaining this phrase, some, such as the 16th century Kabbalist known as the Shnei Luchot HaBrit, suggest that these were mystical thoughts. As the women spun the thread for the Tabernacle curtains, as Bezalel and Oholiav fashioned the more solid materials, they meditated upon the metaphysical import of their activities.
But the Talmud and Onkelos choose a simpler reading. For Onkelos, this is עיבידת אומנוון (ividat umanvan), the labor of artisans, of craftsman. Machshevet means skill. And in fact, in deriving the laws of Shabbat from the construction of the Tabernacle, this very issue comes up (Chagigah 10b, Beitzah 13b). For anyone who has ever used an elbow to hit an elevator button on Shabbat in an urgent situation, melekhet machshevet has meaning. Only melekhet machshevet, things done in the proper way, in an artful way rather than sloppily, is prohibited on Shabbat – מלאכת מחשבת אסרה תורה – On Shabbat, the Torah outlawed only skilled labor. For anyone who has torn open a plastic bag of challah on Shabbat, melekhet machshevet is again at play – this is not skilled labor, or creative work, but mere destruction of materials.
Let us dwell though on a different explanation of melekhet machshevet offered by the Talmud, also in the context of Shabbat. One who slips on a banana peel and crashes into the light switch has not violated Shabbat because no melekhet machsheve has been done: the person who slipped had no intention to flip the switch (Bava Kama 26b)! Violation of Shabbat requires thought, intention to perform an action, just as the construction of the vessels in the Mishkan required thought. Unlike Aharon’s accidental creation of the calf, there is nothing accidental about this new Divine dwelling place.
While the thoughtfulness exhibited in this week’s reading seems positive, thinking can be dangerous – not because we may come to think that we know better, but because of the danger of overthinking. Overthinking – analyzing too much, making mountains out of molehills, playing and replaying dialogues or episodes in our heads. Things that seem within our grasp, so close – when we look down from that tightrope, when we overthink them, suddenly no longer seem achievable. “But how can I accomplish that? There are so many risks. There are so many challenges.” Or a conversation of several sentences may resurface repeatedly for days, leaving us wondering what another other person may think of us, when in fact that person has long since forgotten the interaction.
The good news is that we overthink less as we age. For people in their twenties and early thirties, studies report that over 70% overthink to their own detriment. Once people reach 36, the number drops to around 50%, and for those in their sixties and seventies, the percentage is quite low. (Some might argue that they’ve earned the right to say and do whatever they want, without having to worry about it at all!) The bad news is that we all do it – exaggerating the significance of a moment, a comment, an interaction, a presentation. Rather than asking what the other person thinks, communicating, taking a plunge, we swirl around in our own consciousness trying to figure things out with no new experience, no new information.
And perhaps the worst of all – overthinking after tragedy strikes. Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness, writes:
“Many of us believe that when we feel down, we should try to focus inwardly and evaluate our feelings and our situation in order to attain self-insight and find solutions that might ultimately resolve our problems and relieve unhappiness.”
But, she argues:
“…overthinking ushers in a host of adverse consequences: It sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, impairs a person’s ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative. Moreover, although people have a strong sense that they are gaining insight into themselves and their problems during their ruminations, this is rarely the case. What they do gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective on their lives.”
It is no coincidence that the most mysterious commandment in the Torah, the red heifer which we also read about this morning, deals with death. When we encounter the saddest moment of all – mortality, loss of life – we just want to grieve, to lose ourselves in our sorrow. “I am suffering. I have so much to be sad about.” And while all that is true, rather than offering a ritual that is ripe with opportunity to think, the Torah offers opaqueness. Of course we want to feel, to get in touch with our sadness, but we must not get lost there. Here is a ritual that we cannot overthink- no room for rationalization or inner debate – it is a ritual that simply helps us move from contamination back into life. Sometimes we must do instead of think.
For all of the times the term חשב is used in this morning’s reading, how many more times do we see the term ויעש or ויעשו – he did, they did! Despite their need to contemplate the golden calf and how it had perhaps changed their relationship and the identity of this Mishkan forever, despite their desire to think, they stepped outside of themselves and they acedt; they committed themselves to creating, to moving from internal anxiety to external activity.
And towards the end of the process, Moshe witnessed this spectacular event, and he reacted:
וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה, וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקוָק, כֵּן עָשׂוּ; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, מֹשֶׁה.
And Moshe saw all of the labor, and behold they had done it – in the way that God had commanded, they had done it. And Moshe blessed them.
They had put their fears aside, they had quieted their innver voices, and they had acted. And in truth, they did not need Moshe’s blessing at all. For this ability to carry on, to boldly place one foot in front of the other, to act, is itself a blessing.