Hebrew College is closed until May 1 for Passover. Chag Sameach!

Exodus (Re)Arranging A World of Chesed

By Risa Dunbar
risa dunbar

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38)

Last May, I moved all of my belongings into a storage unit before leaving town for the year. I researched and secured the appropriate unit, donated unneeded items, and packed my remaining belongings into boxes, each of which I accounted for in a detailed spreadsheet. My thinking was that, upon my return to Boston, I would be able to find what I needed, and quickly feel at home once more. Assessing my belongings was technical, physical, and indeed holy work; I hoped that this preparation would offer an easeful transition upon my return the next year, and that the items I would temporarily live without, I would soon be able to rely on and relate to anew.

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is a technical, holy repetition of the essential pieces and arrangements of the Mishkan—the portable dwelling place for G!d in the desert. The first verse of the parashah reads, “These are the accountings of the Dwelling, the Dwelling of Testimony, that were accounted by Moshe for the service of the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aharon the priest:” (Exodus 38:21, Everett Fox translation). Our Sages teach that the Mishkan is a microcosm of the whole world:

Rabbi Jacob the son of Rabbi Asi said: Why does it say, I love the dwelling of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells? Because the Mishkan is equivalent to the creation of the world itself. How is that so? Concerning the first day [of creation], it is written: In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1), and it is written elsewhere: Who stretched out the heavens like a curtain [an item found in the Mishkan] (Psalms 104:2). Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 2:3

The midrashim (interpretive explanations) that follow draw linguistic parallels between each day of creation and specific quotations from Parashat Pekudei about the instructions for building the Mishkan. The midrashic tradition sees the shared themes between the language of the days of creation, and the language of our parashah, as evidence of their fundamental connection. Both are about the experience of constructing, and dwelling in, our world. Feminist theologian Dr. Rachel Adler explains the significance of the Torah’s exacting (sometimes tedious) detail: “‘In the ancient world, a temple was a model of the cosmos.’ (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954) The temple’s designs and the positioning of its furnishings express symbolically what its builders believed about the cosmos.” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) The idea of the cosmos as, “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole,” was so valued in ancient theology that it became a priority to manifest such godly order in our earthly realm. The human order that we bring to this dwelling place [the Mishkan] is in recognition of the power of G!d’s universal order.

The Ancient Israelites, and our Sages, teach us that the Mishkan is a microcosm of the world. Given that, why do commentators pay so much attention to creation, whereas the Torah itself pays so much attention to the Mishkan? What might we learn from the fact that our Torah places so much emphasis on this particular microcosm of the world, while our communities often do not?

The Mishkan offers a profound lesson about the nature of our world; it is not just a representation of our cosmos physically, but also of its essence and values. The verse “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” (Psalms 89:3) can be read interpretively as “the world is built with chesed.” Indeed, the great Rabbinic commentator Nachmanides referred to chesed as ‘overflow.’ How else can we explain the abundant miracles around us: the uniqueness of each bird call, the wonder of the smell of a newborn’s head, or the mystery of the ever-expanding universe?
The Mishkan, as a microcosm of the world, was made with chesed. G!d built the world through that overflowing generosity, and we, the Jewish people, are asked to (re)assemble the Mishkan in a way that emulates this, creating a place worthy for the Divine Presence to dwell among us. When I accounted for all of my possessions last May, I thought that organizing all of my belongings would ensure an easy transition to Israel, and enable me to see the world anew upon my ultimate return to Boston. But the real rearrangement has taken place within my heart, in my capacity to contribute chesed to the rearrangement of the world here in Israel. The Mishkan‘s essential lesson is not about space, it is about the inner arrangement of our heart. Just like we learn earlier in the Torah that the Mishkan is built through each person’s offering (Exodus 35:5), the generosity of spirit, and the care we demonstrate, are what truly build our world at every level.

As I write this in Jerusalem, I cannot help but think of how this world of chesed feels impossibly far, and also very close. The crisis and devastation of this war has made Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank feel like an inhospitable place for the dwelling of Divine holiness, yet there are people tirelessly trying to rearrange the hearts of those who live here, and make it anew for Her. I see people overflowing with chesed every day, raising money to evacuate people from Gaza, or to provide babysitting for displaced families from Israel’s southern region. People organize and attend rallies to free the hostages, and sleep on the ground in uncovered environments in the Jordan Valley to offer protective presence against those who interrupt Palestinian shepherds grazing their flocks. When we are too weary to provide for ourselves, my neighbors and I cook for one another. These generous gifts that (re)furbish our world are more powerful than we know: these acts build a holier world through the boldness of hoping that our actions might make a difference. Chesed is magical because it inevitably leads to more of itself; it is a self-generating force. Like our ancestors who did the holy and mundane work of building the Mishkan for the Divine, may the technical, physical, and holy work to assess what we have—and what we want to build—lead us to the possibility of experiencing our world anew. May we continue to work to make abodes worthy of G!d’s presence, and cultivate the courage to arrange and rearrange our hearts and our world with chesed.

Risa Dunbar is a student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and is spending the 2023-2024 academic year in Jerusalem. She has served in a variety of Jewish ritual and leadership roles at Camp Ramah in Northern California, Lehrhaus: A Jewish Tavern and House of Learning, and most recently as rabbinic intern at Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. Her writing has been previously featured in Gashmius Magazine. 

Explore Graduate Programs  Adult Learning Classes  Support Our Work

recommended posts

Jewish learning So that the Children will Ask

News Highlights New Role for Naomi Gurt Lind, RS ’25, Featured in Jewish Journal

News Highlights Rabbi Giulia Fleishman ’22 Featured in Vineyard Gazette