This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, concludes the entire Book of Exodus, Sefer Shemot. In explicit and somewhat repetitive fashion, Pekudei culminates in a detailed description of the actual construction of the Mishkan, its furniture, its utensils and the manufacturing of the special apparel worn by the Kohen Gadol and the regular Kohanim. The details of materials used, the precise measurements of the objects produced and instructions to the people are again repeated when the people actually carried them out. We must wonder why the Torah found this repetition so necessary.
When we examine the text of Pekudei more closely we find that one verse is repeated 12 times, “They did as Hashem commanded Moshe.” Chapter 39 concludes, “Like everything that Hashem commanded Moshe, so did the Children of Israel perform all the work. Moshe saw all the work and behold, they had done it as Hashem had commanded, so had they done. And Moshe blessed them.” This language reminds me of what I didn’t like about reading a Charles Dickens novel in high school, too verbose. Why the redundancy about following God’s command and why did their performance deserve Moshe’s blessing upon completion?
The rabbis of the Talmud comment on a similar verse later on in the Torah, Numbers 8:3, “and Aaron did so.” They explain that the Torah is praising Aaron for not changing (adding or subtracting) anything to the instructions God gave about the Menorah and its lighting. He did not try to be creative or to leave his mark on the mitzvah. Aaron simply followed precisely the instructions given to him by Moshe through God.
The Torah is God’s manual for mankind. It is written in a way that identifies not only overt human mistakes and flaws but equally important shines a light on the more subtle, covert and internal human defects. The only way for man to advance is by recognizing our innermost desires, as painful as it may be, and being aware of how they influence our behavior. By bestowing praise on Aaron, the Torah is teaching us that even a great person may have the desire to add to or create a religious act. This desire stems from man’s underlying sense of self-worth and egomania. To be great, he must leave his own distinctive mark in the world. Nowhere is this emotion stronger than in the religious realm, the holiest of man’s endeavors.
The Torah condemns this attitude and activity. It demands that man humble himself and recognize that only God can create a religious act. It is true that a person trained in the science of Torah, adhering to the proper rules and methodology of Torah analysis, can interpret the laws and apply the laws to new situations; but like any other area of knowledge, Torah interpretation and application is not a free for all. Just as in medical science the opinion of an untrained person is not trustworthy, so too in Torah. Just as the non-medical person must subordinate himself to the direction of the physician, so too in Torah, a devoted but unqualified adherent must subordinate himself to the Torah scholar. Even amongst the Torah scholars, those in the minority must submit, in performance, to the decision made by the majority.
The true religion for man, conveyed to us by God’s Torah, is difficult and demanding. God’s Torah presents man with challenges but also with great opportunity. Through its commands man can perfect himself in two ways. First, he is trained and habituated in the proper outlet of all physical pleasures. At the same time this religious system affords man a second opportunity, to experience great joy and beauty as the mind of man, through study, understands the truths of God’s religious system.
The Torah has placed one additional challenge on man by not permitting him to be active in creating religious performances. The reward for adherence to the religious system described in the Torah is the true recognition of God as the only authority. What is the benefit for man, other than this intellectual recognition, in following precisely the command of God? The gain is that it directs man toward true personal humility, the greatest of human traits. The Torah speaks of our teacher Moshe, “And the man Moshe was more humble than any other man on the face of the earth.”
The need for redundancy by the Torah in parshat Pekudei is now understandable. The building of the Mishkan, its furniture and utensils, and the fashioning of the clothes of the Kohanim, involves an area of deep human perfection. Looking at these processes on the surface, we would miss, gloss over or minimize a valuable lesson in human perfection. Moshe’s blessing to the people was to endorse what they had accomplished. They met the internal challenge, a serious obstacle to human perfection that breaks our relation to God, presented by the task of constructing the Mishkan. By following the details of God’s command, subduing a potentially unruly part of their nature, Moshe was affirming that they attained a higher level in their relationship to God. Now the Nation of Israel would be deserving of God’s eternal blessings.