Friday, January 31, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5774–Dollhouse

I have often used the simile “the Torah is like an owner’s manual” or the analogy “just as instruction booklets or owner manuals teach us how to use and care for things, The Torah teaches us how be and care for ourselves as human beings.” Our tradition is also replete with metaphors, similes, and analogies attempting to explain what the Torah is and how it is/can be relevant to our lives.

Here in parashat T’rumah, there’ s no need for metaphors, similes, or analogies. Here the Torah is, plain and simply, a set of instructions, a verbal blueprint. If we walked into IKEA and came out with a tabernacle, T’rumah would contain the parts list, and the next parasha, Tetzaveh, the assembly instructions. (Actually, parashat T’rumah might prove more useful at the factory where the tabernacle parts were made, because it contains what are really manufacturing instructions.) Though most of these directions are quite specific and particular, there are enough places where a lack of clarity might yield the sort of confusing assembly instructions we have all encountered in our lives.

Of what relevance, ask many, are these manufacturing and assembly instruction for the tabernacle in our own time? This from the culture that gave us Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, K’nex, and, of course, Lego sets. Our fascination with these things has even given rise to the upcoming Lego movie!

You can buy “build your own Tabernacle kits.”  Online you can also find pictures of Lego tabernacles

One source of these, The Tabernacle Place (not a Jewish site, by any means) does ask this interesting question on their web site:

The Bible has two chapters on creation and 50 chapters on the tabernacle. Why don't we teach it more?

Their answers to the question “why study the Tabernacle?” are, of course, Christological. Judaism has ascribed its own meanings and understandings of the tabernacle, the mishkan.  Most of these come from a time well after the time of the Tabernacle, indeed, well after the time of the two Temples. For some of the rabbis, the mishkan was symbolic of the need for us to leave a place for G”d to dwell among us – in our hearts, as opposed to a physical repository like the Mishkan or the Temples.

I’ve devoted some effort to finding meaning in the instructions of parashat T’rumah, even as recently as last year. My focus today in not on the utilization of metaphor, simile, and analogy to create topical relevance for the words of parashat T’rumah. It’s an attempt, instead, to find meaning in these words through our fascination with how things are built.

We’ve all heard the rants – I’ve ranted myself on the subject – about how the once imaginative toys that were the Lego system have simply become a form of model-building kits. Behavioral, developmental, and educational theorists all proclaim the greater virtue in the free-form expression of the original Lego system, and bemoan the restrictions on imagination imposed by the newer themed Lego sets.

I agree that there is great value in open-ended construction and assembly toys, and I would encourage all of us to try and steer our children (and even adults) into allowing their imaginations to roam free, and not fall prey to the situation so aptly described in Harry Chapin’s “Flowers Are Red” song. We all need the joy and mystery of toys like Tom Paxton’s The Marvelous Toy (here performed by Peter, Paul, & Paxton!). However, is it so wrong to be enamored of kits that teach us how to build specific structures? While I had my plain old wooden block sets, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and Tinkertoys, (Legos hadn’t quite gained the popularity and universality in the 60s that they have today) I also had many model kits – cars, boats, planes, starships. One of my favorite childhood toys/souvenirs was a cardboard cutout fold-it-yourself replica of an Egyptian temple or tomb from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had secret passages and lots of fascinating detail.

These toys were fun – I liked building models, but there was one basic problem with most of them. when completed, they might give some insight into the workings of the thing being modeled, but rarely, if ever, were they built in a way such that they were assembled just like their real-life counterparts, matching model part for every part that went into it. (There were and still are kits that detailed, but they are generally toys for the very rich, and not a kid from the projects like me.) Oh yes, many of the model kits held lots of construction challenges for young minds, and not just in working with small parts. Nevertheless I wonder how much I might have enjoyed a toy in my youth that allowed me to build, brick by brick, piece by piece, a model of a pyramid or temple or tomb.

Imagine the time and effort it takes for those Lego devotees who work to create reasonably authentic replicas or models of things. True, they have to go well beyond the confines of any one kit or system, drawing parts and pieces made from a whole range of specialized Lego parts made for specific kits in order to create their masterpieces. While some model/replica creators may be entirely focused on building the most exact replica, I imagine that some must also find themselves asking questions like “why is this particular part of this structure designed the way it is?”

This type of curiosity seems no less likely to happen when building something from a specialized Lego set – and I certainly hope it does. It would certainly be a curious process to take the text of parashat T’rumah and from it construct a model of the tabernacle. What might we learn from it? It’s one thing to read about the menorah, or the cherubim on the cover of the ark, or the showbread pans – it’s another thing entirely to see them take shape and form (or to try and shape and form them based on just the words of the biblical text, in the absence of drawings and blueprints.) Just as we are all supposed to write our own Torah, maybe we should each construct the parts for and build our own mishkan. We can do this with Legos, or custom parts, or even virtually, with digitized drawings and animations. What might we learn in the process? Imagination takes many forms. We can imagine any shape or form we want, or we can imagine why particular shapes or forms were created the way they were. Is free-form imagination inherently superior? (I’ll agree that it may be, at certain points in the development of a child, or even an adult, developmentally superior.)

Now something even more interesting to think about after we have constructed our model/replica mishkan, is imagining the everyday happenings in it, imagining what it was like to disassemble, transport, and reassemble. What fun is building Lego Hogwarts if you then don’t pretend to be a student there? You might choose to be a major character, or a minor character, or even a imagined one. So when you build you virtual tabernacle, why not take a turn imaging yourself to be Moshe, Aharon, one of Aharon’s sons, a Levite, an ordinary Israelite, one of the mixed multitude, etc.?

We spend lots of time imagining what it might have been like to be a slave in Egypt, to witness the plagues, the miracles at the Sea of Reeds, the revelation at Sinai. What about imagining everyday life with the Israelites wandering the wilderness with their portable tabernacle? We can enhance that experience when we recreate replicas of things like the Mishkan. Consider making the Mishkan your dollhouse this Shabbat as a way to explore parashat T’rumah. Have fun!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?
T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

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