Parshat Pekudei: G-d is in the Details

By Rabbi Eliezer Shore, PhD

 

The Parsha of Pekudei is dedicated by Baruch and Ora Sheinson, in honor of Mordechai Yaakov Sheinson.

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Pekudei is the parsha (Torah portion) of details.[1] This short, seemingly redundant parsha does little more than sum up the information presented already twice in the preceding chapters. In Terumah and Tetzaveh, Moshe (Moses) receives from G-d the instructions for building the Mishkan, including its utensils and the priestly garments. Vayakhel describes the actual construction of these items.

Whereas Pekudei begins with an accounting of all the material that went into the project, and concludes with a further recounting of the Mishkan’s parts as they are finally erected into a single structure by Moshe.[2] Considering how incredibly sparing the Torah is with words,[3] it seems strange that this parsha should spend so much time simply summing up what was said before. Why wasn’t it enough for the Torah to simply state: “And the people did all that Moshe commanded, and Moshe assembled the Mishkan.” Perhaps the answer lies in the nature and purpose of the Mishkan, and its relationship to the creation.

According to the Ramban,[4] the Mishkan was the continuation of the Sinaitic revelation into history. Just as G-d spoke to Moshe from the top of the mountain, so He continued to address him from out of the Mishkan.[5] The Mishkan – and the Temple after it – was a “portable” Mount Sinai. It was a place of continual revelation, where the presence of G-d could be vividly felt and experienced.

According to Midrash,[6] there was another aspect to the Mishkan. The Sages describe it as a microcosm of the universe, with each of its vessels corresponding to another part of the creation: the tent of the Mishkan paralleled the firmament, the menorah paralleled the sun and moon, the laver paralleled the oceans, and so on, through the days of creation.

By describing the Mishkan as such, the Midrash is suggesting that the structure was a model of a redeemed creation. It fulfilled G-d’s original intention of the world as a setting for revelation. This was the nature of the Garden of Eden, and it will be the nature of the future world, when “the knowledge of G-d will fill the earth as waters cover the sea.”[7] In the interim, the Mishkan and Temple served as loci of G-d’s revelation in the world.[8]

Thus, the meaning of the Torah’s precise recounting of the Mishkan’s construction may not lie in the specific verses themselves, but in their overall effect. The Torah is telling us that details – no matter how small – are actually of supreme importance. We tend to think of revelation as a grand event – the splitting of the sea, the thunder of Sinai – yet the verses detailing the Mishkan’s construction suggest that a revelation of G-d can also be born out of attention to the smallest details. This is the implication of the final verses of Parshat Pekudei:

And G-d spoke to Moshe, saying: On the first day of the first month shall you set up the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. And you shall put in it the Ark of the Testimony, and hang the veil before the Ark. And you shall bring in the table, and set in order the things upon it; and you shall bring in the candlestick, and light its lamps. And you shall set the altar of gold for incense before the Ark of the Testimony, and put the screen of the door to the tabernacle. And you shall set the altar of the burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting…

Thus did Moshe, according to all that the L-rd commanded him, so he did… Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of G-d filled the tabernacle. And Moshe was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the Glory of G-d filled the Mishkan.[9][10]

These passages tell us that through the precise alignment of details, something infinitely greater than the parts can be revealed.

This idea is reflected in the path of mitzvot (commandments) as a whole. Many spiritual seekers are often frustrated and baffled by the Torah’s unending concern with the minutia of religious observance. Yet here, too, the Torah is telling us that through the careful arrangement of the details of life, something much greater – a revelation of Divinity on a personal level – can take place. R. Adin Steinsaltz sums this up as follows:

The system of the mitzvot constitutes the design for a coherent harmony, its separate components being like the instruments of an orchestra. So vast is the harmony to be created by this orchestra that it includes the whole world and promises the perfecting of the world. Seeing the mitzvot in this light, one may understand on the one hand, the need for so great a number of details and, on the other, the denial of any exclusive emphasis on any one detail or aspect of life. The mitzvot as a system include all of life, from the time one opens one’s eyes in the morning until one goes to sleep, from the day of birth to the last breath.[11]

The Midrash above compares the Mishkan to the work of creation. I believe that this parallelism can be applied in both directions. Just as the Mishkan became a dwelling for G-d’s Presence through proper attention to its myriad details, so the creation itself can be redeemed and transformed into a setting for revelation through the proper care and orchestration of all its elements.

Furthermore, there is a deep ecological way of thinking inherent in these passages. Today, even individuals with little environmental awareness realize the life-threatening changes that are occurring on a global level; yet few of us, as individuals, feel we are in a position to affect the wide scale changes needed to avoid such catastrophes.[12] We are left to making donations to “green” organizations and supporting the appropriate politicians. What else can we do?

About twenty years ago, a small book was published that quickly became a national bestseller. “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.”[13] Subsequently, numerous similar books were written.[14] All of them bear the same message – that our smallest actions can have universal repercussions, and that by becoming sensitive to even the smallest details of our lives, we can, as a whole, help rectify the world.

For example, the United States goes through approximately 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually.[15] These end up in garbage dumps and will never biodegrade.[16] If just 25% of American homes used 10 less plastic bags a year, the country would save over 2.5 billion bags a year.[17]

There are seven million copy machines in the United States today, producing approximately 400 billion photocopies a year. If each of these machines would print five fewer copies a day, it would save the equivalent of 1.4 million trees and keep more than 26 million cubic feet of paper out of landfills.[18]

In the average home, the toilet accounts for 30-40% of water use. By placing even a small bottle place in the water tank, thousands of gallons can be saved annually.[19] There are countless similar examples.

If we are looking to perfect the world, the place to begin is the Mishkan of our own lives – our homes and workplaces. Early in its inception, the environmental movement coined the term: “Think globally, act locally.” Meaning to say, while our eyes and hearts must always be on the larger picture, the repair of the world begins in locales closest to us, with the smallest details of our lives. This is the preeminent Jewish way of thinking, which recognizes the importance of details in the redemption of the world. And it is a natural consequence of a Torah lifestyle that one learns to think on both of these levels simultaneously.[20]

May Hashem help us see His presence in the details of our lives, as well as in the majesty of the cosmos.

Suggested Action Items:

  1. Do a Google search on the phrase: “Simple things to save the earth.” It will direct you to numerous sites that will provide easy ideas that can improve the world. Choose some and start implementing them.
  2. Share your discoveries with others and encourage them to practice them.
  3. Try one of the simple actions suggested above, to cut down on water use, paper use and disposable bag consumption.

 
Rabbi Eliezer Shore received his doctorate from Bar-Ilan University on the subject of Language and Mystical Experience in the Thought of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He currently teaches at various universities and colleges in Israel, and writes on the topic of Jewish spirituality. When he was younger, Rabbi Shore spent a great deal of time in nature, where he developed an environmental consciousness. He and his family live in Jerusalem.

 

 

Notes:

[1] See Rashi on Exodus 38:21: “In parshat Pikudei, the weight of all the silver, gold and copper gifts to the Mishkan is weighed, and all the utensils for every ritual are counted.”

[2] In-between is a short section detailing the manufacturing of the priestly garments.

[3] As the Mishnah in Hagigah 1:8 states, many laws are like “mountains hanging on a single thread of verses.”

[4] “Nachmanidies” on Exodus 25:1.

[5] Exodus 19:20: “And G-d called Moshe to the top of the mount…”; Leviticus 1:. “And G-d called to Moshe, and spoke to him from out of the tent of meeting…”

[6] Bamidbar Rabbah 12:13.

[7] Isaiah 11:9.

[8] Even in the future, the Third Temple will still serve as a focus of revelation; however, its light will spread throughout the world.

[9] Exodus 40:1-7, 16, 33-38.

[10] Compare this to remarkably similar passages in I Kings 7:48-51, 8:6, 10-11.

[11] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petaled Rose (Northvale, NJ, Aronson 1992).

[12] I have heard from people who work in environmental organizations that many activists, after leaving college and actually entering the field, become so overwhelmed by the extent of the destruction and the job of repair they now face that they fall into deep depression for a while.

[13] Earthworks Press, 1989.

[14] Such as Marjorie Lamb’s 2 Minutes a Day for a Greener Planet: Quick and Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth (Toronto, Harper & Collins, 1990), The Green Group’s 101 Ways To Save Money And Save Our Planet, (Paper Chase Press, 1992), Michael Viner’s 365 Ways for You and Your Children to Save the Earth One Day at a Time (New York: Warner Books, 1991); Diane MacEachern’s Save Our Planet: 750 Ways You Can Help Clean Up the Earth (New York: Dell, 1990); Bernadette Vallely’s 1,001 Ways to Save the Planet (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990); Jeremy Rifkin, et. al.’s., The Green Lifestyle Handbook: 1001 Ways You Can Heal the Earth (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1990), plus Earthworks own sequels: The Recycler’s Handbook: Simple Things You Can Do (1990), 30 Simple Energy Things You Can Do to Save the Earth (1990), 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth (1990), 15 Simple Things Californians Can Do to Recycle (1991), 50 Simple Things Your Business Can Do To Save The Earth (1991), The Next Step: 50 More Things You Can Do To Save the Earth (1991), 25 Simple Energy Things You Can Do to Save the Earth (1991), 50 Simple Things You Can do to Save Your Life (1991), The Student Environmental Action Guide: 25 Simple Things We Can Do (1991), 25 Simple Energy Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth (1992), 50 Cosas Que Usted Puede Hacer Para Salvar la Tierra(1992), and 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Recycle (1994).

[15] Reported by ‘Reusable Bags’, citing the Wall Street Journal. See http://www.reuseit.com/learn-more.

[16] Paper bags don’t really decompose either in landfills, so people can choose to either make the effort to recycle their plastic or paper bags, or to purchase canvas bags to use for shopping, etc.

[17] See 50 Simple Things, p. 24. Other countries, such as Ireland, have recently managed to reduce their plastic bag use by 90% by charging a tax for every bag distributed.

[18] From 50 Simple Things Your Business Can Do to Save the Earth (Earthworks Group) p. 16-17

[19] See 50 Simple Things, p. 48-49: “If the average toilet is flushed about 8 times a day, that means a saving of 8-16 gallons every day… 56-112 gallons a week… 2,900-5800 gallons a years. If only 10,000 people were to install the simplest displacement device, that would equal a savings of 29-58 millions gallons a year!”

[20] Jewish ecologists often like to point to the words of Maimonides as suggesting this approach (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4): “Every individual must think of himself and of the world as a whole as if their merits and demerits were balanced. By committing one sin, he pushes himself and the entire world to the side of demerit, thereby destroying himself; whereas by doing one mitzvah, he pushes himself and the entire world to the side of merit, and brings upon him deliverance.”

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