In this week’s Torah portion we read the summary of the vast project of building the Tabernacle. The Jewish nation, which only a year before were enslaved in Egypt, are occupied with completing the preparations for their complete freedom, as expressed by their building a Tabernacle for God.
We find, in the description of the construction of the Tabernacle by Moses, a sentence that is repeated over and over – which shows us what an important idea it contains: Moses erected the Tabernacle… as God had commanded Moses… He brought the ark into the Tabernacle… as God had commanded Moses. He placed the menorah in the Tent of Meeting... as God had commanded Moses. He placed the golden altar in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moses. He placed the curtain over the Tabernacle’s entrance... as God had commanded Moses. He set the washstand between the Tent of Meeting and the altar… as God had commanded Moses. (Sh’mot 40:18-32) The frequent repetition of the phrase “as God had commanded Moses” is not typical of the Torah’s usual style. It is emphasized over and over again that Moses’ actions in the building of the Tabernacle were carried out exactly according to God’s instructions.
It is evident that there is a message here, but what is it? What is the Torah coming to tell is with this unusual repetition? It is difficult for us, living in an era so far away from the Tabernacle and Temple, to understand the powerful religious experience involved in the building of the Tabernacle. But one thing is clear: the construction of the Tabernacle was the high point in the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Particularly here, at this great time, the Torah emphasizes that each detail was performed according to the precise instructions given to Moses. Particularly at this point, at the time when the religious experience was likely to take over human action and determine its nature, Moses was careful about doing everything according to the rules which he had heard directly from God at Mount Sinai.
There is a popular notion that precise and detailed observance of Halacha limits the aspired-to religious experience and even creates an obstacle to its fulfillment. There is something to this statement, but to a great degree, this is one of the goals of the Halacha! But why limit the intensity of the religious experience or block it altogether? We believe that man basically aspires to do only good. However, we cannot ignore the fact that man is subject to many influences.
Sometimes these are external influences emanating from society, and sometimes these are influences that come from within, such as moods, personal problems, etc. An individual who relies on his own goodwill alone will soon find himself acting according to passing needs, and less according to his true and inner aspirations.
Here the role of the Halacha comes into our lives. Halacha is a set table – just like the name of the Code of Jewish law composed by Rabbi Joseph Karo – Shulhan Aruch. One who lives by the Halacha finds himself before a set table, covered with all sort of delicacies, and all he needs to do is pick up his fork and begin to eat.
True, that set table limits his choices to a degree. But the dishes offered will not be found lacking in comparison to food available anywhere else.
The greatness of Halacha is in its observance. The fact that an individual does not act on his emotions alone, but goes according to the instructions and channels his feelings into them, prevents him from going off the path that he is interested in following.
Loyalty to Halacha requires heroism, not only in reference to negative influences, but also regarding spirituality that is exalted but does not demand commitment. The type of intention, kavanah, that Halacha provides, keeps us in the proper groove at all times.
This is the greatness of Halacha.
This is what we learn from the Torah’s emphasis on “as God had commanded Moses.” Even while building the Tabernacle, Moses did not deviate from the instructions. These instructions provided him with security and stability, and even thousands of years later, they continue to provide us with the same stability that is so necessary in our lives.
IN ADDITION to our regular Torah reading, Parshat Pekudei, this week we will also read Parshat Shekalim. This section is read every year in the beginning of the month of Adar, and comes to remind us of a custom that was observed when the Temple stood, According to this custom, each Jew would contribute a certain sum once every year for the upkeep of the Temple.
This custom, observed for many years, expressed the connection of the individual to the Temple, even if he could not come to Jerusalem himself. Moreover, this custom expressed equality – everyone contributed the exact same sum to the Temple – each individual was an equal partner, without any differentiation between different social positions in society.
After the Temple was destroyed, our sages enacted the custom of reading this selection from the Torah, to remind us of our connection to the Temple. Despite the Temple’s absence, our sages wished to awaken among us an expectation of a different reality, where the temple would stand in the center and influence our national life.
Today, when, unfortunately, the Temple does not exist, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple, serves in the same capacity of unification and remembrance. Every day thousands of Jews, young and old, visit the Western Wall. Men and women, religious and non-observant, all feel the inner unity of the nation in all of its different shades, the eternity of the Jewish people, and their connection to the glorious history of a nation in its own land, with the era of the Temple’s splendor at its highest point.
When we hear Parshat Shekalim read this year, may our desire and need to be connected to this glorious past be awakened within us. Let us hope that a day will come when we merit seeing the Temple built on its site, as a universal center that spreads the message of faith and morality.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.