Near the end of this week’s portion, Moses blesses the people on a job well done. For the previous three and half weekly Torah readings we read about the design and subsequent construction of the mishkan (the portable desert sanctuary), the utensils and the priestly vestments. We also learned how the people donated above and beyond what Moses expected. After all the work was completed we read, (Exodus chapter 39:43) “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.”
What was the blessing? The Torah is glaringly silent at this moment. When the Israelites completed the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem the Bible records King Solomon’s prayer. What would Moses have said to the people at this crucial moment in their religious lives?
We might imagine that Moses would bless the structure itself and express his hope that all in the community might find spiritual sustenance within. All people, we would hope Moses would have said, no matter their economic status nor their physical or mental ability, would be able to worship God equally. In that way God’s command at the start of the project – (Exodus 25:8) “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” – would mean that God’s presence would dwell in each and every Israelite.
However, our tradition, as expressed in Rashi’s commentary on our verse, suggests that Moses actually blessed the people with Psalm 90! How could Moses know what King David would have written 800 years later? For the rabbis the entire Bible is one literary unit that exists independent of time and chronology. So it’s not unusual that Moses would quote a psalm that isn’t found until much later in the Bible.
But what is even more fascinating is that the content of the psalm has nothing to do with a building or with ritual! Psalm 90 discusses how fleeting time is, how powerful God’s powers are and how humanity is nothing compared to God. The key phrase in the entire psalm is verse 12, “teach us to count our days rightly that we may attain a wise heart.”
Constructing a building and going through the motions of the rituals in the building can be enriching and moving. But the ultimate idea is the spiritual message the building represents. Our religion, the rabbis are saying, isn’t solely about performing tasks or offering gifts to God. Our heritage is all about recognizing God’s presence in our life. Our time on earth is short. We need to quickly ascertain that we need God’s presence in our lives to guide us in the right moral and ethical path. We need a wise heart to ensure that that each moment counts – not just for us but for everyone equally in the community. In that way as Psalm 90 concludes, “the favor of the Lord will be upon us, let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands.”
Jonah Layman is the rabbi of Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney, MD and is the Jewish Disability Liaison of the Rabbinical Assembly.