You Done Good – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777

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As a student I took great pride in my work. I always wanted to make sure everything looked right, felt right, and was presented professionally to my teachers. And nothing made me prouder than to get a paper or project back from a teacher with the words “Well done” or “Great Job” or “Excellent” scrawled across the paper in the teacher’s grading pen. Now when I’m teaching, I try to pass on that sense of pride with my purple grading pen and make it a point to encourage and cheer on students for a job well done. I do the same thing as a parent when we take the time on Friday night to bless our children and let them know how proud we are of something they’ve accomplished that week (even if it’s just sleeping through the night). This is common from teacher to student and parent to child, but for some reason we’re more hesitant to offer praise adult to adult, although it can certainly make a difference when we do.

The double portion we read this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei (the final portions in Sefer Shemot), teaches about the work of building the Tabernacle. Moshe, the great leader of the Israelite people in their journey from Egypt, is given enormous responsibility. He is asked not only to lead the people and be the emissary between the people and God, but also to oversee the accounting of the materials needed to build the Tabernacle and all that goes with it.

As the Israelites work on the building of the Tabernacle, there’s a noticeable contrast between this construction for the greater good and the self-serving construction of the Golden Calf. They’re still in the desert and living through this transient time in history, yet they learn to give of themselves freely to create something with a higher purpose. As they build, Moshe takes note according to God’s command.

Chapter 39, verse 43 reveals, “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.” In this moment when the Israelites had followed the directions, putting their hearts and souls into the creation of this magnificent project, Moshe rewards them with proper praise. The midrash teaches that perhaps Moshe shared, “May it be God’s will that the divine presence rest upon the work of your hands.” What a beautiful blessing.

The lesson in this small section of the parshah isn’t just that we should go around congratulating each other. The lesson is that people make mistakes, and they can learn from them. It’s ok to let people know when they’ve mistreated you or crossed a line as long as you recognize that they can change.

Following the Rules – Parshat Pekudei 5776

Following the Rules

My mom will confirm I have been a rule follower my whole life. I thrive on order, and I see rules as guidelines meant to keep me and those around me safe. It’s partly my type A personality that makes me a rule follower, but I honestly don’t mind following the rules as long as they make sense to me. Sometimes this means that I’m a little less daring, or I take a little more time to decide that a particular adventure is right for me, but that’s part of the cost of being a rule follower. I have fun, even if that means a slow-paced, well-thought-out kind of fun compared to someone more spontaneous. This rule following is also why I find so much inspiration in Judaism to help guide me in daily life.

Parshat Pekudei, this week’s Torah portion, brings to a close the book of Exodus. During this book we’ve read about the encounters the Israelites had with God at Mount Sinai and in the desert, as well as about the sacred spaces they were asked to create for God. The parshah itself deals with the final judgments about who will work on the Tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. Finally, the text takes up the building and establishment of the Mishkan, the sacred space where God will dwell among the Israelites.

As God is presenting Moshe with the rules and regulations of anointing the priesthood, we read the line “This Moshe did; just as the Lord had commanded him, so he did.” Apparently, Moshe “did” twice? Why is the bookend necessary?

The first “doing” teaches us that Moshe was an active doer to begin with. He had the ability to make change. In other words, he wasn’t simply following orders, he was the mover and shaker among the nation. The reiteration that Moshe “did” is about his commitment to God’s words. Moshe was more than motivated; rather, he was motivated in accordance with what God asked and expected of him.

Rules are a valuable guide – they keep us safe, they give us direction, they give us boundaries. But it’s the commitment behind the rules that gives us purpose.

It’s a similar concept to one we read just a few parshiyot ago in Mishpatim. The people utter “na’aseh v’nishma,” meaning they will do and they will hear (Exodus 24:7). Judaism has long been thought of as an “active participant” type of religion. In fact, I myself am a firm believer in the power of “doing Jewish” rather than merely being Jewish. However, the understanding of those actions plays just as big a role. After all, are we not Yisrael, the nation that “wrestles” with God and our tradition?

For me, this dichotomy is the essence Conservative Judaism. We are expected to think things through and act on them, but we should be motivated to do so as an expression of our relationship with God. That is doing Jewish.