Thursday, 23 Mar 2017

Written by Gershon Silins

The Torah portion for this week is a combined one, Vayakhel/Pekudei. Together, these portions are among the most apparently tedious in the entire Torah. They include detailed (really detailed!) directions on how to build the Tabernacle, who will design and build it, what materials will be used, what every piece will look like and how it will fit with every other piece. There is a clear intent in the text to leave very little to chance. The thing that’s not directly commanded is the people’s dedication to the project and their willingness to devote enormous personal resources to it.  For so enthusiastic are the people to contribute to this project that their donations become overwhelming, and they must finally be told to stop making contributions; there was more than enough.

In Pekudei, the second of the two portions, there is a phrase that is quite striking. In Exodus 39:43, we read, “And Moses looked at all the work and, see, they had done it as Adonai had commanded; so had they done it! And Moses blessed them.” This communal effort had fully engaged all of them, and that effort had engendered the highest praise from the person who directed it, Moses, who was himself responsible to the highest authority imaginable. Moses’ instruction came from God, but the voice that everyone else heard was the voice of Moses, setting forth the detailed directions and the emotional and material investment that allowed this enormous project to come to fruition. This blessing by Moses must have been a great validation of all they had done.

This was not, however, the first time the people were generous with offerings of precious things for an artistic project of theological significance; in the previous week’s portion, Ki Tissa, that project was the creation of the Golden Calf. No wonder the directions for the Tabernacle are so precise, and their source in God through Moses so clearly set forth. This time, however, the faith of the people is to be invested in the proper object, God, who will dwell in the Tabernacle they have created. And, recognizing this, Moses acknowledges their devotion with his own personal blessing; a moving moment of gratitude.  The people, after much strife and division, are united and at peace.

We are in the weeks preceding Pesach.  Conversations about Purim costumes have given way to planning of Seders. The great work of attending to all the details of this most demanding of holidays is about to begin. Pesach is a holiday that makes enormous demands on everyone, and yet is celebrated and to some degree or other observed by many Jews, even those who observe little else.  Emails are already going out in great numbers, engaging the energy of participants towards the preparation of foods that no one has eaten in a year, complete with details as to how “kosher” the food needs to be for this particular Seder. Abstruse rules are debated, such as whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi rules about kitniyot (foods that are forbidden to Ashkenazim and permitted to Sephardim) will be observed. These are the most complicated Jewish legal issues that many people will ever consider, but in service of the Seder, they will gladly take them on.

What can we learn from the Tabernacle and the Seder? First, that something that is difficult and complicated is not always less desirable, but sometimes more so. And, second, perhaps more crucial, that out of strife and contention that seems insuperable, there sometimes arises a surprising resolution, even though the cost of getting there may be great. Such an outcome is indeed a blessing.