I’ve never seen my sister-in-law’s house look cluttered. Every piece of curated furniture and even the magazines are placed just so. I just couldn’t understand it, even though my mother told me that she was raised this way because her mother was an interior designer. My brother joked that, if he bought something new for their small townhouse, he had to give something up. Even as they moved and their family and lives grew complex, I always left their house feeling like mine had about three times as much stuff in it as theirs did.
During family emergencies where I helped out, I saw that this approach to home decorating wasn’t designed to make me feel badly about myself. So why was the house so carefully manicured? It was a chance to control something and make order where there isn’t any. When one is a methodical soul and life feels chaotic, it’s only natural to want to control something and make it do what you want. We can’t control politics or natural disasters. Even our family members are all independent. We struggle with their health and they do what they want whether or not it’s a problem for us.
This isn’t a Marie Kondo “spark joy” by cleaning article, although it may seem that way. No, it’s about Exodus, at the beginning of Chapter 38, where Bezalel comes on the scene. Bezalel helps create the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting, and the instructions, which were “drawn up by Moses’ bidding” (Exodus 28:21), spell out exactly how it’s to look.
I’ve heard sermons and discussions about this portion of the text where people say, “Why does the Torah spend so much time on these tiny details of design and style?” Yes, design and artistry are pleasing, and perhaps a chiddur mitzvah, beautifying the way we fulfil a commandment, but, for many, this seems to be extraneous and unnecessary.
Ever since getting to know my sister-in-law, who I love very much, by the way, I see this differently. Although I love aspects of design, I lack the gene that would enable me to keep my living space so tidy. It isn’t in me – and it’s certainly not in my spouse, who is more disorderly than I am. (He insists that every pile of paper is deeply meaningful and I shouldn’t touch his filing system.)
When we read about how the Tabernacle is created, it’s filled with precision and detail. It’s something that the Israelites contribute to, own and control, while in the midst of a wilderness, while wandering around and wondering when they will actually get to their new home. Perhaps it gives them a sense of security and purpose to create this during a time of nomadism and uncertainty. Unlike the golden calf episode, it’s a scene that’s calm and controlled.
Even while reading the specifics, there are surprises. Historically, women and children did nearly all hand-spinning of yarn. There were no factories for it. Every single yarn and thread for any garment was spun by hand, on a spindle. We might assume that all of the carefully hand-dyed linen yarn was provided by the Israelite women, yet it’s Oholiab, mentioned in Exodus 38:23, who is the man named as the carver, designer and embroiderer of “blue, purple and crimson yarns and in fine linen.”
There it is again. We think we are certain about all sorts of things in our environment and culture, like which gender does embroidery. We’re wrong. Many of the assumptions we make about gender roles, for instance, come from other times. For example, Victorian notions of a woman’s “higher spiritual nature” have seeped into Judaism. Our assumptions about what we wear or who does what kind of handiwork changes according to time period and culture.
So why be specific and detailed about the building of the Tabernacle or, for that matter, keeping your living room impeccably organized?
Some say that, since the Shechinah (G-d’s divine spirit) dwells in the Tabernacle, it must be perfect and beautiful. Others argue that our homes should also resemble the Tabernacle, because we each have bits of the holy spark, the divine, within. These are all wonderful aspirational and elevated ideas.
I’d argue something different. Our surprising world is busy and chaotic. Every time we shovel snow, the plow comes by and moves it, or it snows all over again. Maybe that flowerbed we planted last year didn’t bloom the way we’d expected it to. Our daily lives are out of our control in many ways, and this doesn’t account for disease, disaster, death or violence.
So, we manipulate what we can. My sister-in-law’s house is always going to be tidier than mine. It’s a way she can bring order to things despite the entropy around her. My house may be untidy, but I’m cooking, designing and knitting textiles in an endless attempt to keep people fed, warm and help them feel loved.
While writing this, my computer blinked. I lost a whole document. This week, a friend’s child is struggling and self-harming. Another far-away friend concludes radiation and chemo treatments, and I don’t know how she’s doing. My car might not start, my kids get sick at school – unpredictability and difficulties abound. However, there’s comfort in routine and minutiae. When we read the Torah portion or do the same Jewish prayers or rituals, we can offer ourselves that order and precision. We can’t control much, but we can control something. Goldsmithing, embroidery, carving, metal work or clothing, each of us can choose to create something precise and beautiful, in acknowledgement of a higher order.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.