“And the chieftains bought lapis lazuli and other stones” Exodus 35:27


The Talmud puns on nesi’im, which here means “chieftains” but can at a stretch mean “clouds”. The sages suggest that just as the manna rained down daily for the Israelites in the wilderness providing food, there was a daily delivery of pearls and precious jewels which were needed for the Mishkan, the portable shrine which the Israelites fashioned for God’s spirit to dwell in.

The sages seems to be trying to solve several problems. Most obviously they need to explain how jewels could be obtained in the wilderness.

But they are also saying something about the arts. People do not live by food alone. We need beauty too. And in the way that the human body extracts energy out of food, we are also programmed to take what nature gives and transform it into beautiful things. Freedom will start to pall pretty quickly if there is no outlet for creativity, and so our desert-dwelling ancestors needed materials for crafting alongside deliveries of food.

The Torah spends so much time enumerating the details of the Mishkan, not only to suggest that it was itself important, but also to signal that the process of creating it was, too.

When we think about the wilderness, we start by imagining austerity. But the many materials needed for the Mishkan’s construction transform the wilderness into a place of abundance. The sages let their imaginations run wild. In their commentary the pearls and precious jewels nestle alongside other luxuries — women’s perfumes and spices for cooking — both of which don’t arrive completely ready to use, but need to be pounded in a mortar.

And far from allowing the manna to be a plain utilitarian food, the sages are excited by its metamorphic nature, comparing it to mother’s milk, whose taste changes depending on what the mother herself has eaten.

These speculations are in themselves joyously and wildly creative. At every level in the account, raw materials needed for survival are supplemented by extras, which are gathered and creatively transformed — under divine guidance or with divine approval— by the human spirit.


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