Monday, March 03, 2008

Pekudei 1

The Ba’al HaTurim (commentary on Exodus 40; 33) points out the seemingly redundant repetition of the phrase, “As G-d commanded Moshe” after each item for the Mishkan was constructed. He explains that as a reward for Moshe’s pleading for the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf, when he said, “Please erase me from your book”, G-d constantly repeats Moshe’s name in this portion.

The Ba’al HaTurim notes further that the phrase “As G-d commanded Moshe” appears eighteen times in this portion, corresponding to the eighteen blessings of the weekday Amida. The phrase, “As G-d commanded, so they did” appears once, and corresponds to the additional nineteenth blessing against heretics. How are these three ideas - Moshe’s pleading, the Amida, and the construction of the Mishkan - related?

The Talmud (Berachot 28b) asks what the eighteen blessings of the Amida correspond to. Several answers are given: Rabbi Hillel son of Rabbi Shmuel says they correspond to the eighteen times G-d’s name is mentioned in Havu LaShem B’nei Eilim (Psalm 29), Rav Yosef says that they are in place of the eighteen times G-d’s name is mentioned in the Shema and Rav Tanchum says in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that they correspond to the eighteen vertebrae in the spine.

It seems understandable to relate the blessings of the Amida to mentions of G-d’s name, since the purpose of prayer is to create a connection with G-d. However, what is the connection between the Amida and the spine? The Talmud hints at the answer to this with another statement of Rav Tanchum in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, that one should bow during the Amida to the extent that the vertebrae stick out. For Rav Tanchum it seems that the essence of the Amida is subjugation to G-d’s will, evidenced through bowing. Elsewhere (Bava Kamma 16a) the Talmud states that a person’s spine transforms into a snake after seven years if they do not bow during Modim. We understand the metaphor of the Talmud, if a person refuses to show humility before G-d, and does not bow in thanksgiving, they come to resemble the snake of the Garden of Eden, who also rebelled against its creator.

This self-nullification in the presence of G-d is what Moshe did on Mount Sinai. After the sin of the Calf, Moshe was prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save the nation. The Rashbam (commentary on ibid. 32; 32) explains that “Erase me from Your book” refers to the book of life. Moshe was prepared to give up his role in this world and the next in order to save the nation. This is the ultimate in subjugation and humility. Moshe felt that he did not deserve any merit in his own right, but that his only value was as the leader of the people. Therefore if they were to be wiped out, he would forfeit his share of both worlds.

The construction of the Mishkan involved months of skilled and difficult work. Though everyone brought donations for the Mishkan, only a few people had the requisite skills to fashion the materials according to the Divine blueprints. Eventually, when Moshe assembled everything and the nation saw the beauty of the structure, with its gold, silver and precious gems, along with colourful woven tapestries, it would have been natural for those involved in the construction to take a certain satisfaction and pride in their work. However, this would have negated everything that the Mishkan represented. How can a human being using their body, which is a gift from G-d, to fashion the materials which were created by G-d, according to a plan given by G-d, take any personal pride in their accomplishments? This is similar to the statement of Pirkei Avos (2; 9), “If you have learnt much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, since you were created for this very purpose”.

Therefore the Torah repeats the phrase, “As G-d commanded Moshe” eighteen times, to show that the Mishkan was constructed with the same selflessness which Moshe embodied. The only purpose was to fulfill the will of G-d. Similarly, in prayer, we should strive for this commitment to serving G-d. We do not make requests of G-d for our own pleasure, but so that we will be better able to perform the will of our Creator.

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