Saturday, February 20, 2016

Parshas Tetzaveh - Faith and Exactness

Parshas Tetzaveh is notable mainly for the sheer mass of instructions for constructing the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, complete with exact measurements.

The modern man may reasonably ask, why G-d would care how many cubits each component of the building needs to be or why the amount of loops and threads must be specified.

Do the technical schematics of a building really matter to the Creator of the Universe? G-d had designed the entire universe from the quark to the cell, but did such exactitude here really matter?

The building of the Tabernacle was the climax of the redemption from Egypt. In some views, it was a recreation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. In others, it was atonement for the golden calf and the loss of faith that occurred when it appeared that Moshe had been gone for too many days and was believed to be dead. The count of the exact amount of days had been gotten wrong.

We see something similar discussed in the Gemara, Talmud, in Berachos. The Gemara wonders why Moshe tells Pharaoh, KeHatzot HaLaila, "About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die." (Shemos, Exodus 11:5)

Why, the Gemara asks, does Moshe say at "about midnight", KeHatzot, instead of "at midnight", BeHatzot? Could there be doubt about the time of midnight in heaven? And indeed the actual plague takes place BeHatzi, at midnight. G-d certainly knows the exact time of midnight.

But the Gemara answers, Moshe was concerned that Pharaoh's astrologers would miscalculate the time and, even while the country was filled with the dead, would shout that, "Moshe is a liar". "He predicted that the firstborn would die at exactly midnight and they died two minutes after midnight."

Such irrational behavior would seem absurd, but then so did Pharaoh's resistance through multiple plagues and the eventual pursuit of the Jews right into the water.

What happened after Moshe departed showed a similar problem with the Jews. The count had been gotten wrong and a minority made the golden calf and the rest did not resist this abomination.

The Haftarah, reading, for Parshas Tetzaveh, is appropriately enough the instructions to the Prophet Yechezkel, Ezekiel, for the construction of the third and final temple. The instructions are once again detailed right to the exact number of cubits.

It begins with the verse, "Thou, son of man, show the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure accurately. And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, make known unto them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof," (Yechezkel 43:10-11)

Measuring accurately is a form of atonement. The precise ceremonies of the tabernacle and temple, the sacrifices and the construction, matter in every exact detail. Does it matter to G-d? It matters to us.

The Egyptians could not be trusted with the exact measure of the time of the plague. The Jews had been trusted with the exact time of Moshe's return, but had nevertheless gotten it wrong. On a larger scale, the exact time did not matter. Whether G-d slew the firstborn of Egypt at 12.00 or 12.02 would not make a difference in heaven. But it made a difference in faith on earth to Jews and Egyptians.

Likewise the exact details of the Tabernacle and Temple mattered because by following the instructions and measuring accurately, the Jews showed a willingness to follow G-d's instructions in detail, abandoning their own egotistical creativity about the designs to follow a heavenly design.

Faith is not some vague thing. It requires exact and specific commitments. Many people believe in G-d, but how many are willing to do something specific when asked. And yet it's specific commitments that show that faith is real and that it actually matters to a person.

The Egyptians feared G-d and did not love him and so they could not be given the exact time since they would seize on any excuse to deny G-d. The Jews had been given the exact time of Moshe's return, but they had also seized on an excuse about the time and a minority used the confusion to build the golden calf. The Tabernacle and Temple provided atonement by following exact instructions through faith out of love.

When you fear someone, you only obey when the object of the fear is right there. But when you can find an excuse to rationalize why you shouldn't be afraid, then you will do whatever you want. But when you love someone, then you are attentive to them. You listen to what they say and fulfill it. You get it right because you care.

Exactitude in the workplace is the difference between helping someone or saving a life and doing just enough to get by. It's the difference between caring and not caring.

Does G-d care how many cubits a component of the tabernacle is? Who knows. But He cares that we care. And that is what ultimately matters. Temples are meant to be embodiments of love and faith. By following exact instructions, instead of doing things casually enough to get by, the Jews atoned for their sins by showing that the will of G-d mattered to them, that they loved G-d and had faith in Him.