Rabbi Monique Mayer – 1 March 2019
Many years ago when I visited the Acropolis in Greece, our guide told us that the ancient craftsmen took such pride in their work that the Parthenon’s forty, larger-than-life pedimental sculptures that capped the columns of the building were finished off on the back side, even though that part was hidden from anyone’s view. The sculptures glorified the Greek gods, and its artisans intended their work to rival perfection to the last detail. I closed my eyes, trying to picture – as I often do – a flurry of activity: architects Iktinos and Kali-crates and master artisan Pheidias (fee-dee-ys) (in togas, of course) supervising and directing and yelling and organising hundreds perhaps thousands of builders and craftspeople cutting and shaping stone and slowly erecting the colossal structure. Discoveries in the unfinished Temple of Apollo in the town of Didyma1 revealed that the Greeks relied on scale drawings and blueprints carved into the floors and walls as they built.
And although the construction of the Parthenon involved advanced planning, there was no evidence that the craftsmen relied on a single set of plans and elevations drawn to scale as a modern architect would. The Parthenon in its glory must have been a sight to behold. And I remembered that while reading this week’s Torah portion, which discusses – among other things – the construction of the Mishkan and its furnishings. The attention to detail, the quality of materials, the accuracy of measurements, the devotion of the craftsmen – these things, too, factored into God’s second great building project (the first being the world). Of course, that’s where the similarities end.
Firstly, while the plans for the Parthenon were developed and executed by its three human designers; according to the Biblical account, the plans for the Mishkan were created by its sole Divine architect and carried out by the people themselves under the direction of master craftsmen B’tzal-el and Oholiav. B’tzal-el means “under the shadow or protection of God”. And generally when we speak of being under the Eternal’s protection, it is under the wings of God’s in-dwelling presence, or shekhinah from the same root as the word mishkan, meaning “dwelling place”. Oholiav means “Father’s tent”. The mishkan was also known as the ohel mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting. Bringing the two craftsmen together united the vision of God’s plan with the practicalities of making the structure. Clearly, Betzalel and Oholiav were destined to be God’s designers and building contractors.
Secondly, while the Parthenon was built as a steadfast symbol of human, Athenian glory, the Mishkan was built for the sanctification of God’s glory. The people would gaze at the Mishkan and be reminded that the presence of God dwelt among them. There the people would offer up sacrifices, not in glorification of military strength or of a human king, but in worship and celebration of the God of Israel. The Mishkan was later reformulated into a permanent stone structure, with similar attributes to the Parthenon. And, although the structure of the Greek building has outlasted our own ancient spiritual home, our religious practice has outlasted that of the Greeks and continues to this day, both in our synagogue worship and also in our home celebration of Shabbat. The candles, the wine, the challah, the salt, have been transported from the priestly altar in the ancient Temple to our modern altar – the Shabbat table.
Lastly, while the Parthenon may have been funded by “protection money” from Aegean cities, the funds and the materials for the Mishkan were freely donated by the people themselves. In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites were extremely generous, returning morning after morning to bring offerings for the craftsmen to fashion into parts of the Mishkan. The people brought so much that they had to be restrained from bringing any more. Perhaps it was the Israelite version of “protection money” after the sin of the Golden Calf. Indeed, part of the reason for the construction of a Mishkan was to provide a place and mechanism for the Israelites to atone for their sins from that time onwards. That aside, what is striking about the account is how the whole community became involved with the project. People brought goats hair and precious stones and rams’ skins and and acacia wood and copper and gold.
Skillful women spun yarns and fine linens; able men fashioned fittings and assembled the tent structure. In reading the story we bear witness to the birth of a community and a people – where each individual offers freely of themself and their ability to work in partnership to complete a holy task. They began the work, and we continue it. Each of us brings own abilities and gifts to our communities.
I eventually discovered a more aesthetic and practical reason for the careful shaping of the unseen part of the Parthenon’s pedimental sculptures: the artisans needed to finish the figures to ensure a high degree of realism. It would be difficult to sculpt the front in proper and realistic proportion without the accurate reference of the back.2 Still, the fact that the artisans wanted their works to fulfil to an ideal speaks to the pride they must have had in their work. What remains of the building is a testament to that. We no longer have the mishkan or the Temple as a home for God’s presence, but by bringing the best of who and what we are to our community, we bring in God’s presence to dwell among us. May we all look for opportunities to bring more of God’s presence into our lives and the lives of others, both within our Synagogues and outside of them.
1 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/ parthenon.html?c=y&page=1 (p.3)
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