This week’s parashah, called Tetzaveh, describes the blueprint for the sacred space that the Israelites are commanded to create so that the Presence of G-d might be immanent in their midst. For the ancient Israelites, there is much excitement in defining and beautifying every little detail of this special place. And hiddur mitzvah, the urge to make the mitzvah you are doing as beautiful as possible, is considered a mitzvah in itself. As we say in the American idiom, anything worth doing is worth doing well. In Jewish practice this leads to a specially set Shabbat table with the best plates, a Sukkah festooned with decorations, and generally taking care to do whatever one does in beauty.
The flip side of this mitzvah, however, is that it can appeal to our less upstanding urges. It leads to expensive trappings that take the place of sincerity. It leads to beautiful buildings built by poor people. And it leads to backlash, as you may have heard: religious practice is just an excuse for showing off one’s wealth in one more community, or words to that effect, might be expressed by any number of religiously disaffected people you’ve met.
According to one commentary, we are to accept that these two sides of ourselves are both acceptably human, and to try to learn to balance between them – in this way to use the energy of each to moderate the other. We are to give tzedakah, but not more than ten percent of what we have; we are to value learning above ignorance, but not to show off our learning; we are to do our best to beautify the mitzvah, but always to remember the Ark.
The Ark of the Covenant was housed in the holiest of holy places in the wilderness sanctuary. Its surface shone with pure gold, according to the Torah’s blueprint. But underneath that gold? Simple acacia wood. Despite the fact that acacia wood has been festooned with all kinds of symbolism, the fact is that it was available. It was not particularly special other than that it was dependably at hand.
“I will dwell in the midst of the People of Israel and I shall be their G-d” (Ex. 29.45). A Hasidic teacher from the town of Alexander (near Lodz in Poland) once taught that false gods are beautiful from afar, just as the Ark shines in the sun from its gold cover. But as one gets closer, one learns that the gold is only a covering, and one comes to appreciate the reality of the wood within that frames and upholds all that exterior beauty.
Gold is good – it’s pretty. Poverty is not a Jewish virtue. But neither is the wasteful display of ego around one’s gold. The gilding which is an expression of one’s kavanah, one’s mindful intention toward the mitzvah, looks just like the gold of the one who flaunts the ability to give. How to discern between them? Look to the inclusive sanctuary which houses the Ark, and which welcomes the gifts of all as equally beautiful. As long as the kavanah, the intention underneath, is as solid and dependable as the acacia wood, then the hiddur, the beautification, glorifies the mitzvah and not the giver.