Friday, February 28, 2014

Sticktoitiveness - Reflections on Parashat Pekudei 5774

A striking characteristic of this week's parasha is the repeated phrase "As the Children of Israel were commanded by Gcd through Moses, so they did." 

Now, OK, I get it: the parshiot of Trumah, Tetzaveh and half of Ki Tissa were the instructions, the engineering blueprints, if you will, for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle. And Vayakhel & Pekudei describe the actual execution of the plans and the construction of the Mishkan. Yet it seems that with every cut of the saw, every bang of the hammer, every stitch of the embroiderer, the Torah reminds us that (you guessed it) "as the Children of Israel were commanded by Gcd through Moses, so they did."  What are we supposed to learn from all the repetition?

The Kli Yakar and other commentators teach that this phrase is employed to punctuate the completion of each component of the Mishkan. Its appearance again after the Mishkan is completed suggests that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. 

Here's another idea: there is a quote that is variously attributed to either Mahatma Gandhi or that ancient and prolific poet, Anonymous (Don'tcha love that guy):

Thoughts become actions,
Actions become habits,
Habits become character,
Character becomes destiny.

True dat! No matter who wrote it, this is a very Jewish idea. Tiny actions, consistently performed, become habit; our habits come to define our character; and over time, our character, what we call in Hebrew 'Middot', ultimately determines our destiny. 

In other words, Destiny doesn't care what college you attended, or how sweet your ride is, or your good looks, or your wealth, or the designer label on your jeans. Your destiny - what you ultimately accomplish in your life - is determined by your inner character traits: honesty, integrity, industry, frugality, humility, alacrity, equanimity, deliberate speech, etc.

Unfortunately, the incident of the Golden Calf graphically demonstrated how the opposite is also true: an errant thought led to a tragic deed, compromising our character and almost dooming our national destiny.

Since, in the view of most commentators, the Mishkan was the corrective for the Golden Calf, this repetition of "ken asu" (thus they did) underscores the contrition, the willing hearts and hands, of the Jewish People in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle. The Jewish People were sincerely penitent (the thought); what the parashah is showing us is the next step: consistent, steady action solidifying into firm habit. This consistency, over time, repairs our national character and thus our destiny as an Am Segulah, a Nation Set Apart.

The Mishkan is also intimately connected to the Sabbath. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to find a hint of this idea in the Lecha Dodi, the ultimate Sabbath hymn, sung on Friday evening, as we "rush out to the fields" to greet the Sabbath Queen. The stanza says that even though the Sabbath was the last of Gcd's creations, it was foremost in the Divine Consciousness: "sof ma'aseh, b'machshavah tchilah" (last in deed, first in thought.) But this stanza can also be understood to mean "thought precedes action."

To embrace our personal and national destiny, we must begin by changing ourselves. One resolution, leading to one seemingly trivial deed, performed consistently over time, can come to change the world. Do mitzvot, good deeds, even if you don't feel like it. Make them a habit, and their meaning will become clearer in the doing. Pretty soon, you won't be able to wait to do that mitzvah again. This is the meaning of the gemara which states that a mitzvah done for the wrong reason will ultimately come to be performed for the right reason. (Pesachim 50b).

May the day soon dawn when we as a Nation, as a Community of the Faithful, be able to declare in unison "ken asu."

Shabbat Shalom.

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