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Beauty is in the Details

The Jewish religion is often misunderstood and disparaged. The non-Jewish world, as well as many of our coreligionists, do not understand why Judaism so concerned with details. Just have a system of general ethical and philosophic principles such as the “Golden Rule,” “Love Your Fellow Man,” and “Make Peace Not War.” Why do we have a system of 613 individual commands, each with its own intricate structure of law? Even the “Aseret Hadibrot,” “The 10 Statements,” commonly albeit mistakenly referred to as “The 10 Commandments,” cannot be properly fulfilled without study and knowledge of the intricacies involved with each one.

In this week’s Torah reading, Pekudei, we come across verse 28 in chapter 38. “And out of the one thousand seven hundred and seventy five (shekels) he made hooks for the pillars…” The Talmud Bechorot, 5a, relates a conversation between a Roman officer and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. The officer argued that Moshe was not precise in his accounting. If each of the 603,550 Israelites gave a half shekel of silver, there would be over 200 “kikarim of silver. Yet Moshe used less than half, 100 kikarim. To make the silver sockets for the Mishkan (verse 25). Where did the extra silver go, implying Moshe may have taken it for himself? Rabbi Yochanan responded that Moshe used the remainder to make the hooks, as recorded here in our verse.

Later in the Torah, Parshat Korach, when Korach and his followers lead a rebellion against Moshe, Moshe reminds the nation, “…I have not taken even a single donkey from them…” Rashi explains Moshe’s retort. When Moshe responded to the charge that he sought to dominate the nation for his own material benefit, Moshe reminded them that he had not even taken compensation for the donkey he used to bring his family from Midian to Egypt on his mission to rescue them. Even though he was surely entitled to be reimbursed for that, he never took anything for himself. Similarly, here in our Parsha, Moshe tells the people to stop bringing the raw materials of gold, silver, copper and brass. The Ramban notes that Moshe’s reaction to the generosity of the people was unlike typical leaders. Moshe was uninterested in the self-aggrandizement of amassing huge treasuries that would be at his personal disposal

The Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, sees in this exchange between the Roman officer and Rabbi Yochanan another idea. He relates that one time he approached a college president on behalf of a Jewish student. The student needed to have an exam rescheduled so he would not have to violate Shabbat or Yom Tov. The college president asked the Rav why he couldn’t just grant the student a one-time dispensation. “The college president,” said the Rav, “was wondering why Judaism would invest so much time and effort on legal, halachic, minutiae.”

On our verse, the Rav explained that our rabbis of the Talmud indicate that Moshe himself initially lost track of these hooks, “until the Holy One Blessed be He enlighten Moses’ eyes and showed him the hooks, illuminated like the stars in the sky.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Pekudei, 415) “Moshe realized,” said the Rav, “that without the hooks, the sockets could not structurally bear the weight of the Mishkan, portable Tabernacle. Without the small details, the fundamental principles would have long since disappeared.”

Did you ever sit on a large commercial airliner and before take-off, think to yourself, “How is this plane going to get off the ground?” Think about all the precision that must go into such a structure. Not only must all the parts fit together perfectly but all the laws of aerodynamics must be taken into account as well. A few years ago, at my grandson’s bar mitzva in Seattle, I met a friend of my daughter’s and son in law, an engineer for Boeing. He isn’t just an engineer on the ground, designing the various jetliner models for Boeing. He also rides on test flights instructing the pilots to put the plane through maneuvers that most likely will never be needed. He has to know if the plane can withstand the maximum stress for which it is designed. He knows intellectually, if everything is built precisely according to the specs, the ride will be safe though turbulent at times. The laws of physics, the ideas by which the reality of God’s physical creations operate, are exact.

The religion of Judaism is also a creation of the same God, the Creator of the universe. For a person just looking for some emotional experience, a “high,” out of some religious activity, details will detract or get in the way. While for most people, “the devil is in the details,” for Judaism and its students, the beauty is in the details. It is exhilarating to discover them, to study their relationship to each other and to see how each one contributes to bringing about the fulfillment of the command. Each mitzvah is structured on the infinite wisdom of the same Creator of the physical world. Hence there is no difference in the precision necessary to properly understand and use both the system by which the physical universe operates and the system by which Judaism operates.

When followed precisely, both systems provide man the opportunity to maximize and satisfy his physical. At the same time man can enjoy the boundless intellectual beauty and exhilaration that emerges from seeing the connections and interrelations of all the intricate parts. From his study of physics, Einstein remarked, that he loved to study God’s thoughts. It provided him endless pleasure and beauty. Maimonides says the same thing about the mitzvot “to love and to have awe of God.” As the Rav indicates, without the details, the fundamental principles would long have disappeared. Just as the hooks give support to the Mishkan, without which it could not stand, so too do all the individual laws give form, structure and beauty to each and every mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Robert Kaplan