Revelation Takes Work: Holiness is A Step by Step Engagement
Imagine a Hollywood director envisioning the moment when Shemot closes. Here was a people who, having been redeemed from slavery had come into the desert to receive the magnificent revelation of God’s Commandments! What a glorious moment! Can you picture how it would be portrayed in film? Rapturous music, with the heavens opened up with the vision of angels singing! The people would dance! There would be Technicolor lights illuminating the faces of the people…
Perhaps that is how Hollywood’s version would go. It is not however, the way that Shemot, this monumental book of Jewish existence closes. Rather than the splendor of revelation, we are presented with the dry details of the building of the mikdash. Our Hollywood epic is “reduced” to a documentary. In black and white!
We want angels singing; we want epic imagery. We get specs and blueprints. What a drag!
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his commentary on Parshat Mishpatim, “Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai.” He is quick to add that we should not feel let down at all. For, while Parshat Yitro contains the vision, he makes clear that God exists in the details of our lives. Both, of course, are essential – vision and detail. Without vision, our lives grow dull and meaningless. But without details, that vision is rootless and, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Details allow us to make our way through our lives.
Rabbi Sacks acknowledges the greatness of Judaism’s noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but freedom is meaningless if it is only an “abstract idea”. Specific laws – details – make freedom real for every man.
Details matter. If you doubt it, go out for a meal with someone determined to lose weight. Each and every calorie is counted! If you doubt it, try and buy a ten dollar book when you only have $9.50 in your pocket!
I have a friend who lives in a coastal flood zone. To continue to insure his house against catastrophic loss, he has had to have his house raised. The process is quite interesting. The house is actually lifted from its foundation, a taller foundation is built beneath it and then the house is rested back on the new, taller foundation. Simple. Unless one corner of the house is off by so much as a quarter of an inch.
Another friend receives a bill with a ballooning payment. He can’t understand what happened. Why was the bill so high? He had failed to read the fine print on the agreement he’d signed.
We know that details matter and yet we often focus our attention on the “big picture”, on the grandeur. In doing so, we fall victim to a very human tendency but one that often trips us up. Love is “all there is” but we love a specific person or thing. We hold art up as the pinnacle of human expression but when we speak of art, it is the specific paintings or symphonies or books that have moved our hearts that we are speaking of.
We long for the grand.
But we must live for the detail. We must live in the detail.
So it is in the narrative of Shemot. We see the transformation of an enslaved people into a free nation. The arc of this transformation is remarkable. Through the early parashiyot of Shemot through Bo and Beshalach, the people prepare for the exodus and final escape from their long years of slavery. When we arrive at Yitro and Mishpatim something even more powerful than their longing for freedom begins to happen; the physical freedom that has been the focus of the parashiyot is transformed into a longing for spiritual independence.
What could be grander or more epic? And yet, how is this spiritual independence communicated? Through a single, concrete act; through the building of a mikdash, a space where God’s spirit will reside permanently among the people. Rather than an exercise in glory, the building of the mikdash is an exercise in detail and micromanagement.
“And let every wise man among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded, the Tabernacle, its tent...” So the text commands, before going on to detail everything God commanded the people to do.
The emphasis upon detail is powerful 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! Okay, we understand that detail is important. But 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? Did God really think the people could not follow the instructions after being told five times? Ten times?
The repetition of the instructions to build the mikdash is not simply a rerun or a presumption that the people require constant “hectoring” but a gesture of God’s love for His children, who were emotionally and spiritually crushed after making the golden calf. In their fallen state, they heard once again the call to build the mikdash, where God’s presence will rest. With that call, their spirits were 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 the same words heard by a man transformed become a message transformed. God’s call was heard by a people with a new understanding, a people whose awareness of God was far greater after they had sinned than before.
God does not change before or after man sins, but man does.
Repetition then, is necessary. Once. Twice, even. But, eighteen times?
It is in this continual repetition that we learn one of life’s great lessons. Life might be enlarged by remarkable “moments, but it is not defined by them. Rather, it is defined by a lifetime of moments. Singular and heroic deeds astonish and capture our attention, but it is in the steady, day by day repetition of detailed duties and simple, good deeds by which the fullness of a life is realized.
A mountain top experience is exhilarating but we do not arrive at the mountain’s peak by a single, daring leap but by the methodical step-by-step, cutback by cutback, climb up the mountainside.
What is the greater challenge, a moment of brilliance or the consistent – even plodding – 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 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.
Again, a good argument for repetition. But eighteen times?
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.
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”.