Sunday was my son Jeremy’s sixth birthday party, and I spent the few days prior baking his birthday cake. On Thursday, I bought ingredients and on Friday I baked four rectangular cakes. Saturday night, I decorated the cake. First, I made white, red and black frosting. I then assembled two layers, shaped the cake like The Cat in the Hat and frosted his striped hat, whiskered face and body — even adding a black liquorish for his tail.
I don’t cook much in general, and I’m not an artsy kind of person. But for some reason, for my kids’ birthdays, I become obsessed and feel compelled to make this elaborate cake. Every year, my husband asks: Why can’t we just buy a cake from the store? Wouldn’t that be easier? He’s right; it would be far simpler to buy a cake (which would take about 10 minutes rather than three days). However, my mom always baked our cakes with us as children, and even though baking the cake takes longer, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people also embark on a consuming art project. In the parasha, God gives extensive instructions on how to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which housed the ark and the tablets during the forty-year desert trek. These detailed architectural plans fill nearly the entire last third of the book of Exodus. Thirteen chapters of the Torah are devoted to this topic. By contrast, the creation of the world takes only two chapters!
The instructions for making the tabernacle are incredibly specific and frankly tedious to read. Why then does the Torah devote so much attention to this topic?
The reason God gives in Exodus is: “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (a 19th century Hasidic master) noted that God did not say, ‘that I may dwell in it’ meaning in the sanctuary but rather “that I may dwell among them,” — among the people. Kotsk explained that each person should build a sanctuary in their heart for God to dwell there.
The reason the Torah devotes so much attention to the mishkan construction is the same as why I feel compelled to bake the birthday cake each year. When cooking with my children, we create a kind of magic. The joy of the birthday begins not on the day of the party but in the anticipation of baking together. It’s my way to thank God for another year of life.
Likewise, after fleeing Egypt and entering the covenant at Mount Sinai, the people needed to do an art project for God. They longed to thank God for the covenant — not through words but by making something beautiful. They yearned to express their gratitude for their precious freedom and newfound relationship with the divine. When we were finally done with the three day cake ordeal, Jeremy turned to me and said, “Wow, Mom, it looks like the real Cat in the Hat!” At that moment, I smiled and knew that all the effort was worth it. I imagine that my mom and God were smiling too from above.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.