This coming Shabbat we are going to be reaching an important milestone: finishing the second book of the Five Books of Moses. It’s always nice to feel a sense of accomplishment for a job well done, to see a plan that’s implemented and completed. This is why whenever we finish reading one of the Five Books we say at the conclusion chazak chazak venitchazek, be strong, be strong, and let us take strength; we take strength from this achievement.
There are two distinct stages to everything we do: the planning stage and the implementation stage. There are a lot of people who are brilliant planners but are not very efficient in actually carrying out the plan. Many times people plan a diet or an exercise routine, or whatever else it may be. All of these things are planned, and planned well, but then – what happens to the implementation?
The importance of planning and implementing
The theme of this week’s portion, Pekudei, is the conclusion of the building of the Sanctuary. The construction of the Sanctuary is divided into the planning stage and the implementation stage. A few weeks ago we had the two portions of Terumah and Tetzaveh which dealt with the planning stage. Last week’s portion, Vayakheil, as well as this week’s portion, Pekudei, deal with the implementation stage.
From the fact that there are four portions dedicated to these two stages – and these portions speak about the details thereof in great length – we see that both stages are important; we need to plan and we need to implement. Implementation without planning makes the implementation ineffective and, of course, planning without implementation makes the planning meaningless.
It is interesting that when it comes to the laws of Shabbat, when the Torah delineates what work we may or may not do, the Torah defines “work” in terms of what was done in the construction of the Tabernacle. Thus, according to our oral tradition, the Sabbath laws take priority over the construction of the Tabernacle.
There were 39 categories of work done in the construction of the Tabernacle. In all of these different categories of work we find this concept of planning and implementation; the work that is carried out has to be well planned and well executed. If it is not well planned and well executed then it does not fit the Torah definition of “work” in terms of the laws of Shabbos, certainly not from a Torah law point of view, although rabbinic prohibitions were added later on as a safeguard against transgressing the 39 forms of work prohibited by Torah laws.
Thus, work which is carried out in an inefficient manner does not constitute a violation of the Biblical prohibitions against work on Shabbos. For example, lighting a match is prohibited because kindling fire is forbidden on the Sabbath day. But if one were to strike the match in a very inefficient manner – say, by holding it in the crook of one’s elbow – even though the action achieves the same result it is not defined as a Torah prohibition of work on the Sabbath (though it is part of the rabbinic prohibition), because it was not properly executed.
This model of planning and implementation applies to the construction of the Sanctuary as well as to the laws of Shabbos. In fact, it is a framework for our lives; everything that we do must be well planned and well implemented. In applying these lessons to our daily life, the planning is about prioritising what we want from life and the implementing is about getting it done.
The need for cautiousness and alacrity
One of our classic philosophers, the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of Italy a few hundred of years ago, wrote a book called Mesilat Yesharim, the Path of the Just. The book is structured like a spiritual ladder of growth, climbing higher and higher. The first two rungs of the ladder are what the Ramchal calls zehirut which means cautiousness and assessment, and zerizut which means alacrity and enthusiasm to get the job done.
These two rungs of the Ramchal’s spiritual ladder parallel the planning and implementation phases discussed above. When the Ramchal talks about zehirut this means that a person has to assess life very carefully, to think about what is his or her purpose in life, and whether he or she is headed in the right direction, in accordance with life’s purpose of doing good in the world and fulfilling G-d’s will. The introspection and assessment as to whether one is in fact living in accordance with these priorities is all the planning stage.
When the Ramchal talks about zerizut, this means that a person has to have the alacrity and enthusiasm to actually get the job done and not procrastinate. One example where we see this directive applied is by a bris, a circumcision. Although the circumcision can be performed at any time during daylight hours, there is no specific time of day that it must be done. The custom, however, is to do it as early as possible in the morning. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances, but generally we try to do it as soon as possible because of the principle of zerizim makdimim lemitzvot, those who have alacrity fulfil their commandments at the earliest possible opportunity.
Alacrity is the implementation phase. Planning is not enough because a person might be too introspective, analysing and assessing all the time without actually carrying out the plans. Therefore, we need the second dimension of implementation, the zerizut, the energy and enthusiasm to actually get the job done.
The combination of these two skills is so important in our day-to-day lives, whether it’s in the area of family life, personal health, service of G-d and doing good deeds or whatever it may be. We need to assess – are we on the right path? Are we spending enough time with our families? Are we devoted enough to community projects? Are we fulfilling G-d’s commandments? – as well as to implement, to actually get the job done.
This is the joy we experience when we conclude the second of the Five Books. It is truly a joyous time, as we feel a sense of accomplishment at having finished reading a whole book of the Five Books once more. And this joy is heightened by the fact that we conclude the second Book with the portion dealing with the completion of the Sanctuary. The fact that they had completed a very important project brings a sense of joy and satisfaction. The joy of concluding, the joy of actually implementing a plan and seeing the results is something which we need to make part of our day-to-day lives.
The joy of completing the Sanctuary
The joy of the completion of the Sanctuary’s construction was even greater because it followed one of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history: the sin of the Golden Calf. The people at the foot of Mount Sinai were waiting for Moses to come back. When they miscalculated his date of return they were concerned that he wasn’t coming back and they made the Golden Calf.
Thus, when we read about the construction of the Sanctuary we have to realise that the joy was that they had recovered from the sin of the Golden Calf to such an extent that they now had reached this great level of building a Sanctuary for G-d and merited his Divine Presence, the Shechina, to dwell among them. To overcome all of those difficulties is a great sign of strength indeed. Despite the setbacks and disappointments, despite falling short of G-d’s expectations, they were able to repent and to build the Sanctuary. Thus the joy of reading about the conclusion of the Sanctuary is the joy of re-establishing their connection to G-d after that terrible rift caused by the sin of the Golden Calf.
The rationale behind the sin of the Golden Calf
The sin of the Golden Calf is a very difficult one to understand. They melted the gold, made a calf and said eileh elohecha Yisrael, “this is your god, Israel, who took you out of the land of Egypt.” The commentators grapple with the question: how can it be that the people believed such a thing? These were the people who had seen the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea; they had heard G-d’s voice on Mount Sinai articulate the Ten Commandments – did they really believe that this calf, this Golden Calf that they had made with their own hands, was the creature that had performed all of these miracles?
According to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, one of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages who wrote his famous book called the Kuzari, the people did not believe for one moment that this Golden Calf they had made was actually a god. They had created it with their own melted jewellery – they could never believe that this thing had taken them out of Egypt. Rather, says Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, what they were searching for was a physical, pictorial image of G-d. They wanted something tangible to hold onto and so they thought this would be a representation of G-d, clearly not a god in itself.
Of course, they were mistaken; one of the founding principles of monotheism that Judaism has given to the world is that we believe in and worship a G-d Whom we cannot see. But the people felt they needed a tangible, physical conduit to G-d, and when they tried to turn G-d into a tangible form this was indeed highly problematic. There is a human need for something tangible and physical to hold onto. The people had this need but it was given expression in an inappropriate manner.
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, another of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages, says that the Golden Calf did not represent G-d to them; rather, it represented Moses. They needed a leader and wanted to hold on to Moses. Careful analysis of the verses indicates that this calf was not there to replace G-d Whom they still believed in; rather, it was there to replace Moses whom they worried they had lost. Again, this was a shortcoming on their part because they wanted something tangible and practical to hold onto. They did not understand and fully appreciate that they had direct access to G-d and did not need an intermediary. This was their mistake, and it led to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Fulfilling G-d’s will is the ultimate holiness
I would like to share with you a fascinating explanation as to why Moses broke the Tablets. When Moses came down and saw them worshipping the Golden Calf, he took the Tablets upon which G-d himself had engraved the Ten Commandments and smashed them. Why did Moses have to do this? He could have just said to the people, that they have made a grave mistake, that those who were involved in this particular sin should get punished, and then move on. Why did he have to break the Tablets? What message was he trying to convey?
The Meshech Chochma, one of our great commentators from 19th-century and early 20th-century Europe explains as follows: the people’s mistake in worshipping the Golden Calf was that they were too connected to Moses. They felt that Moses was their great leader and without him they could not approach G-d. What Moses wanted to show them was that the source of all holiness in this world is G-d. Human beings have holiness only because G-d says they do. Our holiness as human beings is dependent upon our fulfilment of G-d’s will and any particular person or object has holiness only because G-d deems it so. The Land of Israel is the Holy Land because G-d deems it so. The holy objects that we have, like a Torah scroll or the Tefillin that we wear, are holy objects only because they have been made holy by G-d through His Torah and His commandments. There is nothing intrinsically holy about anyone or anything. Only when something becomes an expression of G-d’s will is it invested with holiness.
When Moses came down the mountain and saw them worshipping the Golden Calf, he smashed the Tablets to convey to the people the message that the even though these Tablets are holy and special – they had been hewed and engraved by G-d Himself – genuine holiness comes from obeying G-d’s word and fulfilling G-d’s will. Moses said to the people, you think these Tablets are holy but they have been divested of their holiness because you are worshipping a Golden Calf. He smashed the Tablets to show them how they should be approaching G-d and how to understand the relationship between the so-called holy objects and G-d Himself.
This is why Moses came back down some weeks later with a second set of Tablets as a sign of G-d’s forgiveness after the people had repented. The stones for the second set of Tablets were hewed by Moses (though G-d engraved the words), whereas the stones for the first set were hewed by G-d himself. One might think that the first set of Tablets was “holier,” and yet the two sets of Tablets were contained in the Holy Ark. The two sets of Tablets stood side by side in the Ark to convey an important message: loyalty to G-d is the ultimate value. The first set of Tablets had been smashed, even though they had been hewn by G-d himself, because the people had been disloyal. The second set, although hewed by Moses, nevertheless had sanctity just like the Tablets hewed by G-d, because they represented the people’s repentance, dedication, and loyalty to G-d. Loyalty to G-d is the ultimate source of holiness. This is what Moses was trying to teach them by breaking the Tablets.
Holy places and objects are not ends in themselves but means to get closer to G-d
The Sanctuary was a physical place. But we must realise that despite the fact that it was a physical place and there were careful instructions about all of the physical things in it – the gold, the silver, the wood and everything that went into its construction – the source of its holiness was from G-d. The Sanctuary – and nowadays, our synagogues, and any other holy object that we have – should never become an end in itself. The holy object is the means to the goal of coming closer to G-d. Thus, the people were able to fully understand the message of the Sanctuary in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf.
An important message can be gleaned from this. During the disaster of the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath, the people could not have imagined that this is actually part of their educational experience. Of course, they sinned of their own accord – it was not something which was forced on them by G-d. But the sin of the Golden Calf was actually part of an educational process that they would go through to help them understand the role of the Sanctuary. Only after the sin and the breaking of the Tablets were the people able to appreciate what the Sanctuary was all about.
Channelling failures in constructive ways
Looking back over the second book of the Five Books we can see that there were moments of great achievement like the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, but also moments of great disappointment like the sin of the Golden Calf. Yet even our mistakes and stumbles, when we fall and experience setbacks, can be converted into a building process. They can become something positive which strengthens us for the future.
Going back to the laws of the Sabbath, two of the 39 categories of work are boneh, building, and soter, destroying. It is interesting to note that the category of soter, of destroying, is only considered a Torah prohibition if the intention is to rebuild. If one knocks down a house, that is not considered soter and is not categorised as a Torah prohibition of work on the Sabbath (though it is rabbinically prohibited). But if one destroys something in order to rebuild, that is certainly defined as work and is categorised as soter. Thus, we see that destroying for the purpose of building is considered “work,” while destroying for the sake of destroying is merely destructive.
So, too, in any area of life. The disappointments and the failures that we experience can be destructive or constructive, depending on how we approach it. The Golden Calf was a terrible mistake and a mistake that has had repercussions for generations after it. Nevertheless, they were able to grow from the experience and build from it – a Sanctuary.
Sometimes our plans become stuck. We have the most elaborate and wonderful plans and then when we get to the implementation stage there are failures and disappointments. We have to be committed to planning and implementing but we also have to realise that if a particular plan didn’t work, we need to find another way of doing it; the plans and implementations are really a work-in-progress. At all times we have before us two possibilities: one of destruction and one of building. At every juncture in our lives we can implement new plans, build and create something which is constructive and good – in our lives and the lives of those around us.