Parshat Teruma opens with God’s command to Moses to collect materials for building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, and its furnishings: gold, silver, and brass; richly dyed fibers, linen, and skins; fine wood; fragrant oils and spices; and precious and semi-precious gems. And then God instructs Moses in all the details of the project: how to make the ark and its covering, the table and its accessories, and the menora; and instructions for the Mishkan itself: the cloth covering, the goat’s-hair tent over it, and the planks to support them.
Of course, the Mishkan is no more, and the permanent sanctuary that replaced it, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, has been gone for almost 2,000 years, so the rabbis looked for moral and ethical lessons that could be learned from the approximately 400 verses of Torah that deal with the Mishkan.
One of the things we learn this week is that the Mishkan, the covering of the sanctuary, would be made of 10 multi-colored sheets of fine linen decorated with a pattern of cherubim, and that these would be fastened together with gold clasps. And then the Torah says, “You shall make cloths of goats’ hair for a tent over the Mishkan.”
Inside the Mishkan, the beams were gold-covered, the curtains were blue and scarlet, and the ritual objects were gold and silver. However, from the outside, all a passerby would see was a plain, coarse, goats’-hair cloth, such as was commonly used (and still is used today by the Bedouin) for making tents.
Rashi quotes the Yalkut Shimoni and says that this comes to teach us that we should take care to protect our beautiful and valuable possessions. A later commentator suggests that this is to teach us that we should avoid ostentatious displays of wealth, so as not to arouse jealousy.
These are both excellent lessons, but what comes to my mind is the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” You can’t discover the worth of any thing or any person just by looking. And so, physical appearance isn’t how we should value each other. Yet as many times as we say this, too often our behavior doesn’t live up to our words.
Several years ago, there was a movie called Shallow Hal, in which the male lead, played by Jack Black, is hypnotized and told that he would now see women in terms of their inner beauty. He meets Rosemary, a 300-pound woman, but to Hal she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. Since he now sees her true beauty, Hal falls in love. Ostensibly, the movie was intended to make the point that it’s what’s inside that counts. Now, I may be a cynic, but I’m afraid the real meaning was, if you’re a good and lovable person, you’ll look like Gwyneth Paltrow.
It’s not just unfair to judge people this way, it’s dangerous, and our teen-aged girls pay the price. The number of girls with eating disorders and other problems related to body image keeps climbing. In fact, friends tell me that this has even become a problem in the right-wing Orthodox community where media-inspired standards of beauty are, in theory, much less prevalent.
Someone who looked only at the outside of the Mishkan saw an ordinary black tent. But a person who took the time to learn what was inside would discover what was truly precious. So next time, before you comment about how attractive someone looks, think about the Mishkan and compliment his or her good character and acts of kindness.