A few years ago I was leading a tour for people who had never been to Israel. At the end of one of the days in Jerusalem a few of the men mentioned they had never been to Meah Shaarim, one of the more traditional neighborhoods. It was around midnight, but I suggested we go anyway. Jerusalem at night has its own magic.
We were walking down one of the main streets, and I saw that one of the Yeshivot for the followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslove still had its lights on. Rabbi Nachman is one of my favorite rabbis and biggest spiritual influences. He believed that joy, even in difficult times, was the thing that God most wants for us.
I knocked on the door, and asked the person who opened it if we could look around. He was very welcoming. One of the first things I noticed was an elaborately carved wooden chair that was in a glass booth.
I had heard that Rabbi Nachman had a beautiful chair, almost a throne, that was made for him by one of his followers. I could not believe that I was now looking at it. I did not know it survived.
The person from the yeshiva told me that the chair, which had been in the Ukraine, had been cut into six hundred pieces and distributed among dozens of followers who vowed to meet in Jerusalem. Every single follower and every piece made it. The chair was reconstructed and is now safe in that yeshiva.
The chair itself seems out of character for Rabbi Nachman, who was very modest. Rabbi Nachman said that every moment that the craftsmen spent making the chair his heart was was elevated and filled with feelings of holiness. Rabbi Nachman knew that this chair was not just for him, but was a vessel for others to do holy work.
I think this is why God asked the Israelites to build a tabernacle, a mishkan, a place for God on Earth. The tabernacle was to be made from gold, silver, copper and precious fabrics, but also from cheap hides and balsa wood. Each material was considered just as precious as the next.
After the materials were donated they would be crafted a particular way, assembled and then carried throughout the wilderness toward the Promised Land.
God created the design for the tabernacle out of the materials that the people had, and with the knowledge, skills and abilities that they had. They had just left Egypt, and could only take with them what meager possessions they owned, plus whatever reparations they could get from the Egyptians for their centuries of slave labor. Some got gold. Some got goatskin.
Some Israelites were skilled artisans, others were strong lifters. God saw all of their abilities and potential and designed a system that would allow each person to feel that he or she had a real contribution to make, and that they were valuable and critical to God’s plan.
The Torah is teaching us that when we use or own gifts and skills to help others, no matter what profession we are in, or what volunteer work we do, are any way we support our family and friends, is holy work. God wants us to use who we are to make a difference in the world, not try to be something we are not.
God says in the Torah, build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among and within them. It does not say God will live just in the sanctuary, but within all of us. When we celebrate who we are and what we can do, and cherish the same in others, we build God a sanctuary every day, in every place.