Sermon: Shabbat Vayakhel Pekudei – Beautiful on the Inside and Out

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 14 March 2018

Like many people I grew up alongside a 11.5-inch aryan companion. On average a girl is brought her first Barbie doll aged three and acquires up to seven dolls in her lifetime. My Barbie best friend walked constantly in high heels and taught me everything I needed to know about how a woman should look and act. She had the dream house, the glam corvette and the perfectly sculpted boyfriend.


Yet Barbie also had some not so positive attributes, namely her pin sized waist and her unrealistic body image. Galia Slayen, an American student, decided to confront Barbie’s unrealistic proportions in the launch of the ‘Get Real Barbie’ campaign. She built a life size Barbie dressed in her size double zero clothes from the time of her own battle with an eating disorder. She stated in an interview for the Huffington post:

”If Barbie were an actual woman, she would be 5’9″ tall, have a 39″ bust, an 18″ waist, 33″ hips and a size 3 shoe,… she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.”

Based on the launch of slumber party Barbie in 1965, whose bathroom scale was permanently set to 110 pounds, Slayen estimates Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24. According to the NHS, adults with anorexia generally have a BMI below 17.5.

Recently Barbie herself suffered, with gross sales down 13% since last year. Could this be because our young girls are no longer chasing the lifestyle that Barbie promotes? Are our children finally standing up against the idea that Barbie’s pinup look, and glam corvette is the only aspiration that they should have?

Recognising the decline in sales, Barbie’s creators, Mattel, have decided to launch of the ‘Shero’ range, designed to honour inspiring women. Boxer Nicola Adams, who won two Olympic gold medals, was the first UK star to be turned into a Barbie this week, in aid of International women’s day. Her doll, complete with boxing gloves and distinctive cropped hairstyle, is one of many dolls being created to help empower the next generation of children to follow their passions. The new range of barbies shows young girls they can break boundaries in whatever they choose to do, with gymnasts, conservationists, mathematicians and artists among the range.

These new dolls will join the line of Barbie’s with varying body types – tall, petite, curvy. Barbie herself now boasts seven different skin tones, and 24 different hairstyles to better reflect those who play with her. My blonde haired, blue eyed companion has come a long way.

Whilst Barbie continues to develop into a more representative icon, our media is still saturated with images of perfectly unattainable human beings. In our world that seems to value the physical and material over the spiritual there is constant pressure put on us to look and be a certain way. The digital age presents us at the touch of a finger countless stories and depictions of ‘perfection’ leading us to a narrative that being human will never be enough.

Traditionally Judaism has countered this pressure by taking the focus away from our individual appearance. The streets of Jerusalem, and Golders Green, are filled with a uniform of black suits and hats, beards and payot. Ultra orthodox Jewish women cover their hair and every inch of their bodies so as not to distract with their physical appearance. This might lead us to believe that as Jews we are not bound by our aesthetics, in fact they hold little importance in our world of spirituality.

However right here, in the collection of sidrot we have been reading over the past few weeks that make up almost half of the book of Exodus, we are surrounded with ornamental beauty in the building of the mishkan, a portable sanctuary for God. Not only does God explicitly detail for the people the intricacies of a tabernacle which should be constructed to the exact specifications of the divine, but also the clothes that the priest should wear when performing his duties. The finest of materials are compiled from community offerings; gold, silver, bronze, threads and materials a- plenty.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this manual of construction is the directions for building the Aron Kodesh, the holy ark. It is found in the centre of the mishkan and still has emanations in most modern-day synagogue sanctuaries. We are told that this should be built out of acacia wood to the designated blue print and overlaid with pure gold, on both the inside and the outside.

Why was it important for the ark to be coated in gold both inside and out? Rather should the holiest place not be gold the whole way through? Is it not deceiving to masquerade as solid gold, when in fact it is only acacia wood?

Various biblical scholars have debated as to the reasons behind the ark’s unique design. Perhaps it was to make it more portable, for it had to be carried with the Israelites on their wanderings in the desert. However if this was the case then what was the significance of the golden interior? Another view expresses that it was not made from solid gold in order to not place material wealth at the centre of our worship. But if so why is it gold at all?

Perhaps the specifications of this design were to present a deeper message. The ancient rabbis of the Talmud tell us we should let our characters be like the aron kodesh, gold on both the inside and the outside. We must be as pure and beautiful in our innermost selves as we are on the parts of us that get exposed to the world.

In this sense we have an obligation to look after our mental health with as much care as we look after our external appearance. As Progressive Jews we find necessity in creating a balance between the material and the spiritual. Not bound by the uniformity of orthodoxy, we need to strive to negate the pressure from media outlets and societal norms, by holding the ethos of Judaism in our hearts. This is not always easy in the pace of modern life, and sometimes we may all lose sight of our internal wellbeing.

Perhaps our Jewish texts and traditions can provide both comfort and guidance when the pressures of modern day society become too much. In this sense our healing prayer which is not just for body but also for nefesh, for soul, is so forward thinking. As a community we need to take the time to nurture both, for ultimate healing cannot be achieved until we are at peace both physically and mentally.

Our beautiful religion and its traditions are composed to help us in times of need. Judaism attributes ritual significance to many of our everyday activities, which can help us to focus on the here and now, the small chunks of life that we can cope with, and not to get distracted by external images of unachievable perfection. And joining together with our community, held at the centre of our religious lives, can be a way to help remind us that we are more than the challenges and anxieties we are faced with.

Our physical health is so often easier to talk about than our mental health. Yet in a religion that values the inside just as much as the outside and that holds saving life as its highest principle we must strive to look after ourselves and our community, both physically and mentally.

R’fa-einu Adonai, v’neirafei,

hoshi-einu v’nivashei-ah

v’ha’aleih r’fuah sh’leimah

r’fuat ha’nefesh

U-r’fuat ha’guf

Heal us God, and let us be healed.

Save us and let us be saved

Grant full healing to our every illness

Healing of spirit

and healing of body.

Baruch atah adonai, rofei hacholim.

Blessed be you God, who heals the sick.