Bread and soup and blessing
The centrality of questioning

This week's portion: only connect

Parashat Pekudei, the last in the book of Shemot (Exodus), offers a recap of the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that the Israelites carried in the wilderness. It also offers some beautiful teachings about connection.

Creating the mishkan and its trappings required hokhmah, wisdom or vision. And the mishkan is meant to be a dwelling place for Shekhinah, the divine Presence here in the world. In the Hasidic understanding, hokhmah is the highest aspect of God toward which we can aspire, and Shekhinah (also known as malkhut) is the most approachable and immanent aspect of divinity. They are the top and the bottom of the tree of sefirot. We need to reach up toward our highest wisdom, the most transcendent part of ourselves, in order to roll up our sleeves and build a place where holiness can dwell right here in the world.

Holiness isn't an either/or proposition, either too distant to imagine or fully arising out of familiar earthy reality. It's always both/and. In building the mishkan, our ancestors were challenged to embody that tension: to reach toward transcendent hokhmah in order to build a structure infused with the immanent presence of Shekhinah. Heights and depths. Far away and right here in our hearts. And while altars and sacrifice and tabernacles may feel wildly distant to modern (postmodern?) folks like us, we face that same challenge of connecting what's above and what's within.

The text mentions a few times that each person gave a half-shekel (in Hebrew, a beka) toward the construction. What can we learn from the repetition of half-shekels? Why not whole shekels? One beautiful interpretation of the half-shekels comes to us from everybody's favorite hermeneutic wordgame, gematria. The gematria of shekel/שקל is 430 (ש=300 ק=100 ל=30). The gematria of nefesh/נפש, which means soul, is also 430 (300=נ=50 פ=80 ש).

If a shekel is in some way related to a soul, that teaches us that our philanthropic giving should be a deep act, motivated by who we truly are. That makes sense, right? But here the text stresses that the giving was in halves. God wants half-shekels -- which is to say, half-souls. God wants souls that are in I-Thou relationship, with each other and with God. Our ancestors gave in halves so that it would take two people to create each whole donation.

The deep message here is about relationship. Building the mishkan was an intense undertaking which involved the whole community. But this detail of the half-shekels invites us to see smaller units of connection within the communal whole. Even when we all come together to collaborate on our shared work, it's also important that we relate to each other one-on-one. And even when we strive to connect with our most transcendent wisdom, it's also important that we root that wisdom in the embodied world. When we make those connections -- between transcendent and immanent; between my half-shekel and yours -- we build a place where God can dwell.

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