A 6th-century mosaic, an ancient proverb and this week’s Torah portion all relate to a recent post, “Hopping Off the Treadmill.” They comfort me.
The colorful mosaic map on the floor of the Church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan—I was there—details the Holy Land, particularly Jerusalem. Originally, it contained more than two million small tiles.
The proverb dates back to the 13th century and is often associated—wrongly—with Shakespeare’s King Richard III. Benjamin Franklin famously restated it in 1758: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost . . .”
This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (Records), Exodus 38:21–40:38, concludes the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness. Five portions have detailed materials, dimensions, weights and construction techniques, as well as the elements of the High Priest’s (Aaron’s) vestments and the ingredients of the holy incense.
So critical to the Israelites is this physical locus for an invisible, incorporeal God, that the narrative enumerates virtually every element down to pegs and hooks, and the gems on Aaron’s shoulder pieces and breastplate.
What to make of all this fine detail? Even as the new James Webb Space Telescope prepares to send photos from about 100 million years following the Big Bang, we understand that our solar system and galaxy are mere specs in creation.
We humans consist of atoms and molecules made of energy. They create genes, hormones and the like. These coalesce into bodies we can see and feel. They also direct thoughts and emotions we cannot.
Our egos tend to place us in the center of the universe just as in earlier centuries, people believed that the sun revolved around the earth. It’s hard to acknowledge that the world is greater than we are, that our place in it is small, that no matter how much we achieve, our earthly presence is limited.
I’ve had my disappointments regarding what I’ve failed to achieve, but thinking small helps me put them in perspective. After all, the great Madaba mosaic consists of all those tiles, each playing its role. A nail slipping from a horse’s shoe—or a screw dislodged from an appliance—can create an unwanted failure. God did not suddenly place the Mishkan in front of the Israelites but, through Moses, instructed them on how to fashion it and from what. The smallest materials and specifics of craftsmanship helped contribute to the Mishkan’s majesty.
In “Hopping Off the Treadmill,” I mentioned that many people are leaving their jobs in search of new ones to find more fulfilling lives. Some will make more money, others less. Long-term, most will be better off.
Real satisfaction requires a healthy sense of humility. I don’t advocate poverty or a future without hope of advancement. But neither should we harm ourselves and others in a drive to conquer the world, which ultimately will scoff at our pretentions.
The small stuff evokes a related piece of wisdom: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Standing together, we can form stronger families—by birth or choice—more vibrant communities and a greater nation equal to its professed ideals.
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