When I was younger, I remember being highly uncomfortable in large ornate synagogues. And though I have somewhat outgrown the militant anti-materialism that fueled it, I still find it easier to pray in as Spartan an atmosphere as possible. Hence when we get to the parshiot about the Mishkan, I feel a little out of place.
The easiest way out of my problem would be to say that the Mishkan was designed based on people’s need to be impressed. Since they were impressed by lavish palaces and pagan temples, simplicity would have lessened the value of the Mishkan in their minds.
But I would like to suggest a different approach: The Torah (Shemot 35:22) notes that when it came to donating gold, the women were at least as generous as the men – and most likely even more so. Kli Yakar, among others, sees this as a hint to the contrast between this occasion and their earlier reluctance to give of their ornaments for the golden calf. This contrast obviously puts the women in a better light than the men who seemed to be just as eager for one as for the other.
One has to remember that according to most commentators (Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Netziv, etc.), the calf was not made for idolatry, but rather as a conduit for the worship of God. Moreover, it had been approved by the universally respected and beloved Aharon. True, some of the people eventually used it in highly forbidden ways – something which led to near disaster for everyone. But when it was set out by Aharon, it was to fulfill a purpose not so different from that of the Mishkan. So my suggestion is that the difference in the response is not because the women had less of a need for the calf, but rather because they had a more spiritual approach to the gold which they were asked to give.
While not all beauty is completely objective, it naturally appeals to man. And for the religious person, that appeal leads to appreciation of its ultimate Creator. The more beauty there is to behold, the greater our appreciation of God – even if we are not always aware of it. Indeed, I find a sunset to be a profound religious experience.
But unlike sunsets, access to beauty is not always free. In some cases, as with precious metals, the scarcity of these objects of beauty also turns them into expensive commodities. In such cases, I believe that men and women generally respond differently. While men will not lose sight of the object’s beauty, they will be even more impressed by its commercial value. Conversely, though women are not unaffected by such an item’s commercial value, that is of less consequence to them. How does this play out?
If gold is primarily a commodity, it should be used in the same way as money. In financial terms, it is a liquid asset; meaning there is no point in holding on to it, per se. It is meant to be used for greater benefit. Hence, as soon as a reasonable need came up, the men did not hesitate to part with their gold ornaments.
However if gold is primarily an object of beauty, its relinquishment requires more deliberation. It should only be given to places in which that beauty will be most appropriate. That being the case, the women did not see Aharon’s ad hoc judgement as definitive. Indeed, Ramban asks why Aharon chose gold and not silver. While different answers can be suggested, the question emphasizes the subjective nature of his decision.
But when the command for the Mishkan came from God, the women had no reason to doubt that He knew how the beauty of their golden jewelry could best be used. As they already understood, it should be used to magnify beauty and enhance it further. It should do so, because the appreciation of beauty is ultimately appreciation of its Creator. With this type of clarity, they became enthusiastic and selfless givers.
Even though there is truth to the men’s perspective as well, the Torah makes it seem that the women’s perspective was truer. So while I am still hesitant to recommend making donations to beautify synagogues, rather than to feed the hungry or support Jewish education, the women of this week’s parsha teach us that beautiful places of worship serve a true spiritual function. To ignore this reality is apparently to ignore the insight of half of mankind.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast, Women’s Day and the Voice of Sarah!