In one of its unusual passages, the Talmud (Eruvin, 21b) reports that King Salomon instituted the laws concerning the Eruv, i.e. “mixing of the realms” through which one is allowed to carry objects otherwise forbidden on Shabbath from one domain to another, private and public. At another occasion King Salomon instituted the ritual washing of the hands. Both decrees were received with divine favor and a heavenly voice issued and proclaimed: “My son, if your heart is wise, Mine will be glad, even Mine…” (see Mishleh 23. 15)
Asks the great Chassidic Sage Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, what the great wisdom in these laws is that the Heavenly Master approved joyfully of them. In his typical way, the Kotzker Rebbe responded and said that it shows that one ought to be involved, i.e. mixed up with the world and simultaneously be able “to wash one’s hands of it”.
This observation is all the more remarkable since it was King Salomon who was deeply involved in the world and tasted its pleasures to the full. Still he had the capacity, according to the Kotzker Rebbe’s words, to be detached from it.
To eat, to drink, to be fully involved and to remain somehow disconnected from the world is indeed a great wisdom. Only when one is able to bring a divine flavor in one’s earthly condition will this be possible. The art is to add a taste of Heaven.
When looking into the constructing of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, built in the days of Moshe, we find a possible reflection of this wisdom. As is well known, the Tabernacle was build in the desert and afterwards brought to the land of Israel to become the center of divine worship. Henceforth, the Jews would no longer live under open miracles (as in the desert) but were commanded to build a society, which simultaneously had to become a political body and a deeply religious civilization.
To do so, it was not possible to build a society in which only the essentials would be permitted without any dimensions of beauty and “fineries”. For a society to function properly it must permit, nay, encourage certain luxuries, such as art, music and other pleasantries. They are the necessary poetry of the religious being. At the same time they can easily become an obstacle to the spiritual requirements of religious life when they are not able themselves.
As such a society needs to include them but simultaneously keep them connected to the infinite.
When carefully observing human existence, we can divide our needs into three categories.
Essential: needs such as food, clothing, shelter which are the elementary requirements for human existence.
Useful: craftsmanship – such as the building of roads, bridges, and other crafts (utensils, tools) which make human life easier.
Ornamental: arts which have no other purpose than to enhance our lives with more beauty and pleasantries.
All these works can contribute towards the common weal and national good. In fact they carry the potential for religious enrichment. However when they get out of hand they can lead to indulgence and conspicuous consumption, to envy, social tension and ultimately to class struggle, corruption and national disaster.
When looking into the very items of which the Tabernacle was build we see that all these categories were represented. Some items were absolutely essential to the Tabernacle, such as the outer structure itself and other parts were added to make it easier for the Priests to serve, such as the ascent which made it easy for them to reach the altar, while other fineries were added which had no practical function but to enhance the beauty of the Tabernacle, such as embroidery and the display of colors. In fact Jewish tradition states that all the different kinds of work in which men could ever be involved were represented in the Tabernacle. Those which were not, do not count as work since they lack any purpose altogether.
The message seems to be clear. Before the Jews started to build their future state they were asked to build a physical structure which would represent and include all the kinds of work they would later, in the land, ever get involved in. So as to make sure that they fully understood that nothing was ever to become an object of indulgence, envy or pure physical crave, they were asked to give initially their firstlings of all their labor to a higher cause, the Tabernacle, and so to dedicate their thoughts and talents – which were one day to be used for their political and social improvement – to divine service.
By modeling the Tabernacle and all its accessories, the vestments and various articles, they would be mindful of God and their purpose as a holy nation. By the time they would use all these talents again when involved in their day-to-day life, they would be reminded that the very first time they were ever mixed up in such work, it was used for spiritual-religious purposes. As such they were encouraged to reenact the same work, once used for the building of the Tabernacle, and accompany it again with similar higher thoughts, even when they would be involved in their daily occupations. (1)
As such they were able to mix with worldly affairs and at the same time, knew the art to “wash their hands of it”. It is to this that the Kotzker Rebbe alluded when he explained that God blessed King Salomon when he instituted the “Eruv”, the mixing of the realms and the washing of the hands.
This highly original observation is mentioned by Rabbi Yisachar Jacobson in “Iyunim BeParashiyoth HaTorah”, Sinai Publishing House, Tel Aviv, 1977, Parashath Tetsaveh, in the name of Moses Mendelsohn! Obviously many other symbolic, ethical and philosophical reasons have been given for the tabernacle and all its items.