Each and Every Day: Holiness is Step by Step

My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind. - Albert Einstein

Central to the narrative in Shemot is the transformation of the people into the nation of Israel from the remnants of our slavery. Through the early parashiyot of Shemot through Bo and Beshalach, the people prepare for the exodus and final escape from the long years of slavery. When we arrive at Yitro and Mishpatim something even more powerful begins to happen; our physical freedom that has been the focus of the parashiyot becomes a more spiritual transformation. A people escapes slavery, a nation begins to form in the desert. By the time our reading arrives at Yitro and Mishpatim, we find ourselves in the midst of the transformation from our physical freedom to spiritual independence and exclusiveness.

How is this new spiritual independence communicated to us? Through the building of a mikdash, a space where God’s spirit will reside permanently among us. However, just as our physical freedom was not realized without setbacks, our spiritual development was challenged from the outset. Ki-Tisa shows us Israel like an unfaithful bride under the chupah; seeking a golden calf.

Like individuals, communities face crisis, error and sin. And, like individuals, how a community responds to its inevitable misdeeds and failures define it more than the initial missteps. It is only after the tragedy of the golden calf that we build the mikdash. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, we implement the plans and ideals previously outlined and welcome God into our midst.

What a glorious moment! The heavens should open with the singing of angels! Yet, that is not how Shemot, this monumental book of Jewish existence closes. Instead, we read endless details of the building of the mikdash. We long for the beautiful image but we get spec sheets and blueprints.

The Abravanel weighs in against disappointment. He notes that the Torah records on five occasions in both a detailed and general way the construction of the Tabernacle. The most puzzling being the one when Moses said to Israel, “And let every wise man among you come and make all that the Lord hath commanded, the Tabernacle, its tent...” going on to detail everything God commanded them to do.

Wouldn’t it have been enough to have ended with the words, “and make all that God hath commanded”? We have to ask ourselves, Why the repetition?

The emphasis upon detail is conspicuous throughout the Sidrah. The Torah informs us eighteen times that the Israelites followed the instructions they were given, “just as God commanded Moses.” Eighteen times! Even if we agree it is important to know the many and varied details to build the mikdash, why repeat the words verbatim eighteen times? Certainly once would have sufficed!

Ramban and Or Ha-Chayyim agree that the reason for the repetition is similar “to that advanced by our Sages with regard to the recapitulations of Abraham’s servant Eliezer. Since the story was so precious to Him, it was recorded twice over. Similarly, the story of the Tabernacle was recorded twice because it was beloved by Him.”

But the repetition of Eliezer’s conversation is not relayed, as the story of the mikdash, verbatim. The additions and variations between the original story and Eliezer’s reports add to the narrative and lessons we take from the repetition.In this case, “it was beloved by Him,” because even without the additions and variations, “the table-talk of the Patriarchs’ servants was more precious to the Holy One than the Torah of their descendants.” God enjoys even the “repeats” of those who find themselves in the company of the Avotin the same way a grandparent enjoys hearing stories of their grandchildren from people who have seen them.

We understand God’s pleasure in Eliezer’s reports. But what enjoyment could He derive, however, from a dry repeat of the Tabernacle’s construction? Great enjoyment as it turns out! One of God’s great pleasures is in anticipating man’s ability, inner strength, and power to repent, “for His right hand is stretched out to receive the penitent.” God knows only too well man’s nature which leads him to sin. That is the reason for God’s greatest kindness to man – teshuvah. Therefore God enjoys approaching man with a spirit of forgiveness. He is the “gracious One, who pardons abundantly.”

The repetition of the instructions to build the mikdash is not simply a rerun but a gesture of God’s love for His children, who were emotional and spiritually crushed after making the golden calf. In their fallen state, they hear once again the call to build the mikdash, where God’s presence will rest. Their spirits are rejuvenated. “It was beloved by Him.” The passion to build the mikdash overwhelmed the sin of the egel.

God’s enjoyment at seeing His people enthusiastically repent brought forth a renewed call to build the mikdash– not just a revisiting of old feelings. “It was beloved by Him” to again be able to give instructions to a spiritually resurrected people, knowing that now they would respond “just as He commanded.”

“I am the Lord before man sins, and I am the Lord after man sins.”

The “repetition” of all the mikdash’s details and specifications is the call of God “after man sins.” As such, it is a new call. Why? Because it is heard by a people with a new understanding, a people whose awareness of God is far greater after he sins than before. God does not change before or after man sins, but man does.

Repetition resonates then.

But still, eighteen times?

It is in this continual repetition that we learn one of the great lessons of life. We live at a time when experience is reduced to sound bites and our deepest emotions are expressed in 140 characters or less. In such a context, it is hard to remember that life is not defined by remarkable “moments” but by a lifetime of moments. Singular and heroic deeds astonish, but it is in the steady, day by day repetition of detailed duties and simple, good deeds that the fullness of a life is realized.

Arriving at the mountain’s peak is not accomplished by a single, daring leap but by the methodical climb up the mountainside, step-by-step, cutback by cutback.

We praise the brilliant essay, but I would ask, Who deserves the greater commendation, the student who wrote the singular piece or the conscientious student who day in, day out performs to the best of his abilities? The one-time million dollar philanthropist or the consistent, caring giver of more modest means who makes a point to contribute regularly to every important charitable cause? Do we only laud the one who leaps into turbulent waters to save the life of a child or do we also applaud the one whose daily life is filled with good deeds, each in and of itself a small pearl to be sure, but which, over a lifetime, form a beautiful necklace of such pearls?

What is the greater challenge, a moment of brilliance or a consistent, ongoing goodness?

Moses saw greatness in the human achievement of little things; in the exact and precise execution of instructions, in self-discipline, and in faithful and caring attention to every detail, “and Moses looked over-all the work, and behold, they had done it as the Lord had commanded, even so they had done it, and Moses blessed them.”

Blessing is a recognition of those details.

It is in the particular that we see the Divine. When we eat an apple, we say a blessing because of that apple. When God created humankind, He did not create multitudes, but rather one man and one woman; their value equal to the worth of the entire world. Heroism is not required to achieve greatness. “He who saves one soul is considered to have saved an entire world.”

Judaism’s primary concern is the singular, the individual, the detail.

The Jerusalem Talmud likens the repetition of God’s instructions for the mikdash eighteen times “just as God commanded” to the eighteen blessings of the Shmone Esreh. At first glance, the comparison seems only cursory, a numerical agreement. But looking closer, we see that the Shmone Esreh, more than any other Jewish prayer, teaches us that life is not a mishmash of universal generalities or one-time needs and pleasures but the recognition that a particular God, who is capable of providing and responding to every single one of our very many detailed and specific personalized needs and requests, hears our very particular prayer.

The wisdom required by one is not the wisdom sought by the other. My frailty requires a different forgiveness from yours. The healing needed by one is different from the therapy required by another. Prayer is an individual religious experience because as the details of requests vary, so do the details of the response. We pray to God, because only He can relate and respond to our unique, particular needs, “For He alone is the poel g’vurot, oseh chadashot, ba’al milchamot, zorea tzedakot, matzmiach yeshuot, boreh refuot.”

God wants us to imitate His ways. Just as He must pay attention to the most minute of human needs, so He expects and anticipates that we too will live not by generalities or universal truths but rather by heeding the call of Divine details. Our life is as a mikdash. When we do, we have claim to compare our ways to His and we find ourselves walking “…in His ways”.