My father was very good with tools. He had many, and collected more over time. He knew how to use levels and augers and soldering irons. He would try to teach me, and I appreciated his facility, even though my own use of tools was (and is) sloppy, inexact. My father would carefully measure and craft precise solutions to mechanical problems. I just bore the hole in the wrong place and patch and redo until I get it right. I'm proud when I can actually bring a project to completion, but it always bears the scars of trial and error. Inevitably the happy product of my industry has hints of putty and touch-up paint.
This week's Torah and its associated haftarah portion are both about building projects and selecting the right tools to invite in the holy. On the Torah side, Parashat Terumah in the Book of Exodus is God's request of the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, to offer terumot, gifts. Gifts of their valuable raw materials to create a mikdash, a holy tent that will accompany them for these forty uncertain years. Gold, silver, copper, precious stones, exotic animal skins, acacia wood, oil and incense – which you would not expect desert refugees to have on their person – are all on the wishlist. God says:
ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם
"They will make Me a holy place and I will dwell among them." (Exodus 25:8)
The Israelites had already witnessed God in all sorts of spectacular manifestations. It is hard to imagine them believing that God would dwell among them, specifically within this relatively small tent. But maybe they understood that making this holy space – and making it lavish and customized – was part of the dance. You have to invite your partner into closeness, and these gifts and this labor make it happen. "They will make Me a holy space and I will dwell among them." I.e., if you build it, God will come.
The Torah portion goes on to give extensive detail about the construction of the ark, and the poles, and the tent, and the coverings, and the vessels, and the lamps and the altar made of acacia wood. Torah is unapologetic about the opulence of the design. While a simple stone might have served as an altar for Jacob generations earlier, a simple stone would no longer do, now that Sinai was behind us, now that we and God were newlyweds. Torah is unapologetic because, it seems, Torah believes in the importance of bringing attention and beauty to our welcoming of the Divine. That somehow that attention to detail is a piece of our own soul preparation.
So now let's move to the haftarah portion from the first Book of Kings. Because again a holy place is being built, but now we have scaled up. It's 480 years later and King Solomon, the son of King David, is building the Temple in Jerusalem. Again, many instructions, much discussion of materials. And again, God speaks into Solomon's ear, saying:
ושכנתי בתוך בני ישראל ולא אעזב את עמי ישראל
"I will dwell among the Children of Israel and will not abandon my people, Israel." (I Kings 6:13)
This Temple is no longer a wandering tabernacle but a national monument. Instead of an enclosure made of fabric and wooden poles, we have the tall cedars of Lebanon and massive stones to make altar and walls. And here, in this moment of construction, we come back to our question of the right tools for the right job. Because the instructions for the Temple say this:
והבית בחבנתו אבן שלמה מסע נבנה ומקבות והגרזן כל כלי ברזל לא נשמע בבית בחבנתו
"In the building of the House of God, only whole stones were transported, so that hammers and axes and iron tools would not be heard while the House was being built." (I Kings 6:7.)
So how do you create monumental Iron Age architecture without axes, hammers or iron tools? Yes, it could just mean that the milling happened at the quarry, many miles away where the ringing and clanging would not bother anybody. But that's too easy an answer for us Jews. Instead, our midrash, our vast array of legend, goes wild here. How did whole stones come to be so regular and perfectly shaped if iron chisels were forbidden? How were they transported if iron crowbars couldn't pry them onto wagons? One midrash suggests that the stones, once uncovered in the quarry, perfectly shaped, would hoist themselves up in the air and levitate to Jerusalem. (Pesikta Rabbati 6:1.)
Another midrash posits that the stones were shaped by a creature called the shamir. A shamir in ּּBiblical Hebrew is something pointy used for cutting, like a hard thorn or a diamond. But in this legend, the shamir comes alive. It is a worm that can hew stone with its glance and which, at King Solomon's bidding, cut the perfectly shaped stones of the Temple without use of any iron implement. There is no point looking for this creature in your bestiary. Midrash says that when the Temple was destroyed, the shamir went extinct. (BT Sotah 48b.)
Even the Quran reflects legend that something supernatural happened in the building of the Temple. Instead of the shamir, Islamic tradition makes Solomon a master of jinni, who hewed the rock with magic and built the Temple at Suleiman's command.
But ultimately, the magical solution is less interesting than the prohibition of iron tools to begin with. Why no iron tools in building the mikdash, the holy place? Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, a sage in antiquity, pointed out a fundamental tension. He said, "The altar was created to lengthen a person's years; iron was created to shorten them." (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael 20:22:2.)
In other words, a holy place, an encounter with the Divine, is meant to make our lives longer, or at least give greater meaning and depth to the years that we're given. Iron, on the other hand, is the stuff of weaponry. Iron represents violence as much as it does manufacture. And violence and holy space do not go well together.
Instead, says the text, our Temple is to be made with even shleymah – with whole stone. Shleymah – meaning complete or of one piece, and from the same root not only as King Solomon's name, Shlomo, but the same root as shalom, peace. Of one peace. Wholly wholly wholly.
The text seems to say, and the sages agree, that peace and holiness cannot be crafted using tools of violence.
And there is the important lesson for us 3000 years later. Because we are a bunch of people trying to build edifices of holiness. Lives of wholeness. Communities of respect. A world of peace. These are the Temples whose construction we are trying to figure out. And we keep getting caught with the wrong tools for the job.
The text says that axes and hammers and iron tools should not be heard in the construction. Not that they shouldn't be seen. And maybe this is a hint for us that it is words that so often are the most destructive weapons. We are wounded by words that we have heard that belittle us, that humiliate us, that deploy – no, employ – metaphors of war and violence. And then we take those same words and use them in the name of peace. We organize actions and target this or that institution; we try to be the cutting edge; we shoot from the hip; we fight injustice and battle hate; we trigger each other; we call difficult challenges – and each other's sensitivities – minefields.
What would it be like, in contrast, to build our holy lives, our communities and our planet using even shleymah – building blocks of wholeness? If we were to look inside and find those parts of us that are whole, that have been healed, that contain intact vision? In Jewish tradition we tend to pay attention to the our broken parts, our broken hearts, and see them as portals to God. But what if we looked to the parts of ourselves that are not traumatized, the parts of ourselves that have experienced love, the parts of ourselves that we're proud of, our skills and sensitivity, our poetry, music and senses of humor? Even the abundant compassion we sometimes offer to the parts of ourselves that are jangly and sharp. What if we brought those things into our building project? Not the wounded parts that experienced and in turn give out hate. But the parts that knows love?
We're so used to tending to our wounds, soothing our brokenness. But take a moment right now, and look inward. Find what is whole in you. Appreciate it. Now imagine if you were to bring that quality, that memory, that facility forward; if you were to levitate it to your holy building project, whatever it is, and set it down as a cornerstone of your own holiness and the holiness you seek to build – what would that be like?
These parts of you that are whole do not need to be cut and hewn and drilled and milled. They do not need to be subjected to the hard implements that have hurt you in the past. They are ready already, uncovered and waiting in your quarry, waiting to be part of your mikdash.
So beware of trying to make peace using the vocabulary of war, either our language or strategies or values. As Audre Lorde famously said about bringing an end to racism, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."
But maybe a different paradigm, in which peace – wholeness – is the model, a paradigm in which wholeness describes our materials and our methods, maybe this can build a mikdash so that God can dwell in and among us.
I, for one, am tired of agitating for change as if it were a battle. As if it were a building project in which I punch holes in walls that then need to be patched. It is time for all of us to be deliberate, to cultivate our wholeness and bring it to bear. So that we can all look in our toolboxes and, like my father, take a satisfied and hopeful breath, and say, "Here. I've got just the right thing."
I was helped here by a useful and timely conversation with my fellow Aleph Ordination Program student, Steven B. King of Anchorage.