Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777

Don’t you hate it when you’re reading to little kids, you’re putting everything you’ve got into this amazing rendition of a childhood classic, and as soon as you finish the book or story, instead of a standing ovation or full-throated “Bravissimo!” they just say, “Again!”? I mean, can’t we just read another story? I love reading to kids, especially my grandchildren. But that persistent “again,” just gets to me. On the other hand, many authorities claim that the repetition is good for the kid. The famous motivational writer and speaker Zig Ziglar explained, “Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” Good quote, but it’s boring after we’ve mastered the particular skill at hand. I just read a fascinating article that explains how good it is for the toddler ( So, we do it “again,” while muttering under our breath like Joe Pesci from “Home Alone.” However, at some point a little before middle school, repetition loses its charm. From that point on, you can tell the world’s greatest story for the first time in years, and they’ll whine, “not again!” And that brings me to this week’s double Torah reading. Why does this week’s parsha repeat all the stuff about building the Mishkan from the readings Teruma and Tetzaveh, when I didn’t find all those instructions very interesting in the first place? I mean, this stuff reads like Lego instructions, which I also must read for my grandkids. So, why, oh why, do we repeat it?

We, therefore, really have two questions: Why are the instructions repeated, and why are they given in such excruciating detail? Let’s be honest: we’re not going to build a Mishkan in our backyards. For this week’s discussion, I’m going to ignore a famous debate about the chronology of all these instructions. In this article, I’m only concerned with one big factor: The instructions in Teruma-Tetzaveh are recorded before the Sin of the Golden Calf, and those in Vayakhel-Pekudei are listed afterward. The material and its presentation must be seen in that light. Rav Avraham Walfish points out that the process of the sin begins with “Vayikahel ha’am, and the nation gathered,” and our parsha begins “Vayakhel.” This new version of the material must be seen in the light of the sin.

One major difference in the two renditions of the instructions is the terminology for the donations. First time around we have an emphasis on the term kicha (take). The donations were described as mandatory payments to be taken by the Mishkan Authority. I’m surprised there weren’t toll booths for entering the Mishkan in this first iteration of the mitzvah. However, the Kli Yakar emphasizes that in our repetition of the material, the word that stands out in the description of the contributions of the Jewish nation is nediv. This beautiful word describes true philanthropy: giving with a full heart. This explains why the architects of the Mishkan, Betzalel and Oholiav, had to ask Moshe to stop all the giving because they couldn’t handle all the material coming in. Thank God, the Jews came to see that the giving for the Golden Calf could be atoned for in their generosity for the worship of God.

OK, this is great! Now we understand why this material had to be repeated—to enlighten us about the sincere repentance of the Jewish people. But why must it be so detailed? What is the purpose of all the minutiae of the construction? Clearly, we could (and do!) use every little feature of the Mishkan to teach a lesson about life or about spirituality, but I’d like something more overarching, with a greater overall perspective. And there are, indeed, authorities who explain that the Mishkan and, later, the Temple must be understood as a microcosm of the universe and Creation. But I’m looking, this year at least, for something more practical and down-to-earth. And, wouldn’t you know, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks did just that.

Rabbi Sacks begins by pointing out an all-too-familiar fact of Jewish communal life: We Jews complain. A lot. Of course we complained in Egypt—after all, it was oppressive. However, right after the Exodus, at the first sign of trouble (in the form of a column of massed Egyptian chariots), our ancestors whined: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt (Exodus 14:11)? Right after the crossing of the sea, the Jews moaned about the lack of water. It is a constant of our narrative that the Jews whimper, wail and weep. There is one exception. From the day Moshe descended from Mt. Sinai the second time, throughout the total construction period of the Mishkan, for almost a year, there were no gripes, grumbles or groans.

The former chief rabbi explains: A remarkable proposition is being framed: It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God. Rabbi Sacks teaches us that affording us this responsibility made us partners with God. When God does all the heavy lifting, we become dependent and weak, thus prone to whining. He elucidates that we became a “society,” which means that we became concerned for one another and shared the load.

Allow me, please, to return to an idea that I previously mentioned in passing. The Mishkan can, indeed, be compared to the universe; it is seen as a microcosm of the cosmos. This idea is profound, but the profundity isn’t in what it teaches us about the universe. It’s in what we learn about ourselves. God gave us this task, with all its myriad of minutiae, to make us co-architects of the Creation, and in so doing made us co-creators of our destiny. To paraphrase JFK: Ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for God. It makes all the difference.

By Rabbi David Walk

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