Based on an article from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Where did Moshe (Moses) think he would be able to find artists for the construction of the Mishkan (Sanctuary)?
Artists?! The beleaguered Jewish People had just left Egypt. Some two hundred years of torture, suffering, and vicious enslavement hadn’t exactly left them with plenty of time to develop their artistic side. Building the Mishkan would require a menorah carved out of a single block of solid gold, complete with golden blossoms, almonds, and other adornments, a show-bread table, two altars, and two beautiful cherubim to crown the ark of the covenant. It required elaborate tapestries and coverings woven with a deft and graceful hand. Not to mention the architectural work.
Needless to say, none of these skills were strong points for the former slave nation which, until recently, had spent the vast majority of their time bent to the ground heaving bricks with a whip lashing at their shoulders. Sophisticated professional crafting with wood, gold, copper, and textiles just hadn’t been in the ballpark for the past several hundred years. Where were these artistic skills supposed to come from?
This question was one of the most important catalysts for the nation’s emerging new identity. The building of the Mishkan was placed before the Jewish People as a challenge. Moshe informed them of what was needed and expected from them by the Almighty. The response was up to them.
The Jews could have responded, “Moshe, give us a break. Who knows better than you about what we all went through in Egypt? You know we can’t do this stuff. We just don’t have what it takes to make this happen. Give us a few years, let us pull ourselves together, read up a little on welding and carving and all those other things, and we’ll get back to you about it sometime...”
For the majority of peoples who have suffered brutal, abusive, slave-like living conditions, things like a sense of unmarred self-worth, confident idealism, and a vision of greatness often have to wait for a generation sufficiently removed from enslavement to even begin to think in those terms. It would have been perfectly natural for the Jewish People to refuse the Almighty’s Mishkan building plans. After all, claims of incompetence would have been perfectly legitimate.
But the Jewish People responded differently. Collectively sitting up straight and perking up their ears, the nation took heart. A spiritual adventure! A holy mission! A Mishkan paralleling the structure of the soul of man and the spiritual structure of the entire universe! Their imaginations soared and spirits were ignited. A decision was made, and tasks were assigned: we will build the Mishkan, no matter what!
But how? With what tools? With what skills and what foreknowledge? These questions didn’t faze them. The newborn nation, risen from the dust of years of slavery, decided to believe in themselves and in their ability to fulfil G-d’s instructions. Believing in yourself is a powerful thing. Their fierce desire to succeed led to abilities and skills they never knew they had before. They believed they could do it, and so they learned how with all the fire of their enthusiasm soaring behind them.
These ideas are expressed in the verse, “Every man whose heart inspired him came, and everyone whose spirit motivated him...” (Exodus 35:21). Swept up in the vision of holiness blossoming within them, the inspired gathered before Moshe with bright eyes and ready hands. Somehow, they knew they would succeed.
Slaves spend their days looking down at the ground, forced against their will to focus all their attention on bare-bones means of survival. Day to day living is hard enough. Victims of brutality are left with scarce time, and even less energy, to dream and to believe in the power of their dreams.
But the true tragedy is when a people maintains this slave-mentality even after the lash of the whip has been removed. Picture a busy street corner in Manhattan. Gray suits stare down at the ground, feet scuffling across grimy pavement to reach the next of a million meaningless destinations. Do we believe we can be more than we are? Do we dream, and believe in the power of our dreams?
Ever heard the expression, “Hitch your wagon to a star?” Well, the Jewish People hitched their wagons to the Almighty Himself. They tapped into the power of eternity, a sense of mission that transcended their personal limitations and allowed them to become more than what they were.
To be a light unto the nations, we needed to develop an internal glow, a luminance of faith and inspiration that wouldn’t leave us when we were faced with challenges that looked too great to overcome. We needed to believe in the Almighty and in our ability to fulfil His holy mission. Building the Mishkan began our work of history, overcoming “impossible”. We still can.