Commentary on Parashat Pekudei, Exodus 38:21 - 40:38
Pekudei is the Torah portion of details. This short, seemingly redundant Torah portion does little more than sum up the information presented already twice in the preceding chapters.
In Terumah and Tetzaveh, Moses receives from God 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 Moses.
Considering how incredibly sparing the Torah is with words, it seems strange that this portion 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 Moses commanded, and Moses assembled the Mishkan.” Perhaps the answer lies in the nature and purpose of the Mishkan, and its relationship to the creation.
Revelation & Redemption
According to Nahmanides, the Mishkan was the continuation of the Sinaitic revelation into history. Just as God spoke to Moses from the top of the mountain, so He continued to address him from out of the Mishkan. The Mishkan — and the Temple after it — was a “portable” Mount Sinai. It was a place of continual revelation, where the presence of God could be felt and experienced vividly.
According to Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 12:13), 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 suggests that the structure was a model of a redeemed creation. It fulfilled God’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 God will fill the earth as waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).” In the interim, the Mishkan and Temple served as loci of God’s revelation in the world.
Embrace the Details
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 God can also be born out of attention to the smallest details. This is the implication of the final verses of Parshat Pekudei:
“And God spoke to Moses, 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… (Exodus 40:1-7)”
“Thus did Moses, according to all that the Lord commanded him, so he did… Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of God filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the Glory of God filled the Mishkan (Exodus 40:16, 33-38).”
These passages tell us that through the precise alignment of details, something infinitely greater than the parts can be revealed.
The Minutiae of Mitzvot
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.
Rabbi 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. (The Thirteen Petaled Rose)
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 God’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. We are left to making donations to “green” organizations and supporting the appropriate politicians. What else can we do?
About 20 years ago, a small book was published that quickly became a national bestseller: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth (Earthworks Press, 1989). Subsequently, numerous similar books were written. 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. These end up in garbage dumps and will never biodegrade. If just 25% of American homes used 10 fewer plastic bags a year, the country would save over 2.5 billion bags a year.
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.
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.
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.
Suggested Action Items
1. Do a Google search for the phrase: “Simple things to save the earth.” You will be directed to numerous sites that provide easy ideas that can improve the world. Choose some and start implementing them.
2. Share your discoveries with others.
3. Try one of the simple actions suggested above to cut down on water use, paper use, and disposable bag consumption.
Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.
Pronounced: muh-NOHR-uh, Origin: Hebrew, a lamp or candelabra, often used to refer to the Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukkiah.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.