Constructive play for children involves making things no one has ever seen before. It involves taking basic building blocks or shapes and creating something new, something imaginative and creative. In short, something that is an expression of the children themselves. Constructive play serves to focus the minds of children, leading them to invent and discover new possibilities.
The benefits are extraordinary. Studies show that constructive play enhances spatial awareness, encourages critical thinking and reasoning, improves focus and patience, helps develop maths and science skills, boosts language and literacy, and builds confidence.
Perhaps one reason why the effects of construction toys on young minds is so powerful and far-reaching is that life itself is about building. What we build changes over the years – we go from building toy tractors and robots to building families and friendships, homes and careers, knowledge and understanding, reputation and legacy. And our construction play only ends the day we leave this world.
Interestingly, the Mishna refers to great Torah scholars as “builders”. The Gemara (Shabbat 114a) says this is because Torah scholars are involved in the building of the world. Rav Yerucham Levovitz explains that every mitzvah is a separate building block in perfecting the world, and in constructing the unique masterpiece that is our lives. Each action towards the fulfilment of a mitzvah is another brick in the edifice, which is made up of all of these good deeds created both in this world and the next world. Through mitzvot we are able to build an edifice of spirituality and morality in this world, and an edifice of reward in the next world. Life is a process of building, brick by brick, mitzvah by mitzvah, action by action.
This week’s parsha discusses the mitzvah of building an altar, a mizbeiach, to G-d. It specifies that this altar cannot be made out of a single rock or slab of stone, in Hebrew a matzeiva. Rather, it must comprise various pieces of stone, constructed together to create the edifice. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that whereas a solid piece of rock represents the natural, G-d-given state of the world, the altar, assembled piecemeal, is a testament to human effort and ingenuity. He says life is not about what G-d gives to us, but rather what we give to G-d. Of course, it is important to recognise G-d’s hand in nature, to appreciate the balance and beauty of the natural world, and acknowledge all of the tools and opportunities that G-d has blessed us with. But, the ultimate purpose of life is to use everything that G-d has given us to serve Him.
The heart and soul of Judaism is the concept of “mitzvah”. A mitzvah isn’t just a good deed; it’s more accurately translated as a “commandment”. The purpose of life as a Jew is to follow the will of Hashem through the mitzvot; to serve Him with everything that we have. Of course, there are many blessings that come from a life dedicated to serving G-d – hope and faith, peace and tranquillity, purpose and a sense of personal and spiritual fulfilment. But, these are simply the natural by-products. Judaism’s focus is on the service itself, service for its own sake. Rabbi Hirsch says our central mission in life is to build the world in its entirety as an altar to serve G-d, to dedicate our existence to the One who created us.
It is interesting to note that for the Temple service, we use a mizbeiach, an altar constructed from multiple stones, yet for a tombstone, we use a matzeiva, a solid piece of rock. Why is that? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his commentary on this week’s parsha, explains that the altar built from multiple stones represents a work in progress, while the solid piece of rock represents completed work. While we are alive on this earth, our lives are a work in progress. We are in this world to toil, to accumulate as many mitzvot as possible, to build, brick by brick, a beautiful edifice bearing testament to a productive, fulfilling, meaningful life. Only when we leave this world is our task complete – represented by the complete, fully formed slab of stone that is our tombstone.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come, and a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of this world.” This world is a world of doing. The world of the mizbeach. We need to use our time on this earth to build, to accumulate as many mitzvot as possible, because they are all we will take with us when we leave it. In the next world, the world of the matzeiva, there is no doing, no building, only being. Indeed, the reward and the tranquillity of spirit can only be fully realised in the next world. This world is filled with the turbulence of doing and creating and fulfilling mitzvot. The next is the world of rest and of receiving reward. This is the world of the mizbeach, of the altar, of building brick by brick. The next is the world of the matzeiva, the completed work.
Our work is never complete while we are alive. Our work in this world never ends, there is no concept of spiritual retirement. The Gemara relates how Rabbi Akiva, who, in his old age, lost 24 000 students to a plague, and began again from scratch, rebuilding his yeshiva with five students. There is so much to do, so much we can do – so many opportunities to build. Our lives are always a work in progress.
Only when we leave this world for the next do we finally get to enjoy the fruits of our labour. But, there’s also a sense of loss in not being able to achieve anything else, in no longer having the opportunity to build and do mitzvot. There’s an interesting Jewish law that a man who visits the cemetery should tuck in his tzitzit, so they cannot be seen, out of sensitivity to those who have left this world and no longer have the opportunity to perform mitzvot.
We, on the other hand, have that opportunity. We have mitzvot and we have life. We have the raw materials, and we are expected to do something with them, to build something. Something only we can build, and that enables us to fulfil our sense of purpose. The altar of our lives is waiting to be built.