VAYAKEYL PEKUDEY/PARA 5775
Some would say that this morning’s Torah reading is obsessive; others would call it compulsive. Either way it doesn’t make for an exciting read. If there’s a parsha of the Torah many would like to skip, it would probably be the one that we read this morning, Vayakeyl Pekudey. It’s filled with minute details describing the materials, dimensions and furnishings of the Mishkan—the portable Tabernacle the Jews built to use in the desert till the got to the Holy Land. The problem is that we’ve already reviewed all these details in the last 3 Torah readings.
The final 15 chapters in the Book of Exodus may be an architect’s or an interior designer’s delight. Most of us, however, are mystified by them. We’re told that the children of Israel were commanded to build the Mishkan…then we’re told how they were to build it…then we learn that they finished building it…and if that isn’t enough, we now review all the materials that they used to build it.
Details, details and more details! Hundreds and hundreds of tiny details that at 1st glance seem irrelevant and unimportant! Why isn’t it enough today to tell us that Gd commanded the people to build the Mishkan and then that they carried out the task, kaasher tziva Hashem, like the Gd had commanded them? We could have saved 45 minutes this morning! The Torah seems obsessed with these minute details.
Of course, there are many attempts to explain this obsession. Jewish mystics explain that the tabernacle was a microcosm of the cosmos. In a sense, the Israelites were recreating the Divine world here on earth with the completion of their house of worship. Every detail was therefore significant and symbolic. After all, when you are recreating the cosmos you can’t afford to leave anything out! But that doesn’t really comfort us when we listen to, techeylet v’argaman v’tolaat shani v’shaysh mashzar again and again and again.
The obvious lesson is that details are important and can’t be ignored. Good intentions are not enough. Judaism demands not just good intentions, but right actions as well. To paraphrase the saying about the devil, if I might, “Gd is present in the details.” So we must pay close attention to what we do and how we live.
In Jewish Law there’s an important distinction between what is called l’chatchila and b’di-eved. L’chatchila means “before the fact” and b’di-eved is “after the fact.” When you ask a rabbi a theoretical question he will tell you what you’re supposed to do l’chatchila. But if you’ve already acted in a certain way he may tell you that b’di-eved, after the fact, what you have done may be acceptable. B’di-eved is always less stringent, but it’s not necessarily better. B’di-eved may assuage someone’s guilt but it doesn’t mean that they have really risen to the level of excellence, of holiness. L’chatichila we encourage people to do things the right way; after the fact we may comfort them by saying, “B’di-eved, what you did is all right, but it’s not the best way.”
When Gd commands the Jewish people in the previous 10 chapters of the Torah to build the Mishkan and all that goes in it, that is a l’chatchila command. And when in our parsha the Torah goes into such detail showing that they did everything just the way Gd commanded, it shows that they did it in a l’chatchila way. The repetition of all the details is to show us that we can do things in a l’chatchila way. We can live our lives in a l’chatchilda way.
This has so many ramifications in our lives. One can pray at home on Shabbos morning and still fulfill one’s obligation to pray. But if one comes to shule, as one experiences the holiness of community, the power of one’s prayer is magnified many times.
It’s not a coincidence that we read Vayakeyl Pekudey this morning as we celebrate Shabbat Para. Shabbat Para is the 3rd of 4 special Shabbatot before Passover—reminding us that the countdown to Pesach is getting much closer and we now have to get serious about the many details of Passover preparation: food to buy, rooms to clean, invitations to issue. Passover drives us crazy as we walk from isle to isle in Krogers or Publix trying to find the products that are Kosher L’Pesach. Even labels are not enough: some products from Israel may say Kosher l’Pesach but they may contain legumes or corn syrup which is permissible l’chatchila for Sephardic Jews but only b’di-eved for Ashkenazic Jews.
You can have a l’chatchila Seder this year, or you can just show up and go through the motions as you mumble a few of the prayers and have dinner. I’ll tell you what I do and you can do the same. Every year I read a new Haggadah commentary and bring new insights from it to the Seder. May I suggest you do the same. Go to Judaica Corner or online and buy a Haggadah with commentaries so you can share some of them at the Seder. There are web sites with suggestions for special activities to spice up your Seder. The point is, begin to plan now on Shabbat Para to make your Seders a truly wonderful l’chatchila holy experience.
Let me close with the story of Moshe, a loyal servant of the king, who served as his treasurer, watching over the king’s wealth for many years. In fact, the king and Moshe became best of friends. But the king’s other advisors were jealous. They insisted that if Moshe was to remain treasurer, he had to convert to Christianity. The king came to Moshe with this request and Moshe—who was never very religious—decided that his job was worth the conversion. So he and his whole family embraced Christianity.
Weeks and months passed and Moshe was troubled by his quick decision. How could he give up his ancestral faith so easily? Finally, Moshe came to the king and said: “Your highness, I regret my decision to convert. If I must give up my position as treasurer to remain Jewish, so be it.”
The king, surprised by his friend’s affirmation of his faith, told him: “Moshe, if I had known how strongly you felt, I never would have asked. Of course you can go back to the faith of your people!”
Overjoyed, Moshe rushed home. “Sarah,” he said, “I have good news. I asked the king and he said we can be Jewish again!”
Sarah scowled at her husband and said: “Couldn’t you have at least waited till after Pesach to ask him!”
My friends, as we approach Pesach let’s celebrate the details. I know it’s a busy and tiring time of year, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s something magical and holy about the kitchen of a Jewish home on erev Pesach that celebrates the holiday in a l’chatchila manner—with all its amazing aromas and excitement. Let’s make Pesach this year more of a family enterprise rather than something for which only one member (usually female) is mostly responsible. Pesach is a special spiritual opportunity that only comes once a year.
My friends, life is made up of details. Let’s embrace them, appreciate them, celebrate them and sanctify them. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis