Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Emily's Derashah Shabbat Pekudei

Today we read the conclusion of the book of Shemot.  In Sefer Bereishit, we read the story of our development as a family—the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Sefer Shemot tells the story of our development as a nation—Am Yisrael.  
The book begins with the story of how we went down to Egypt as a family of 70 people.  We grew and expanded so much that already in the first chapter, Pharaoh identifies us as “Am Yisrael rav v-atzum.”
The first third of the book describes us as a nation of slaves, united in our suffering and in our redemption, as Hashem takes us out of Egypt.
In the second third of the book, we become a nation with a purpose, as Hashem tells Moshe to tell Bnei  Yisrael why Hashem saved them.  

We say “Naaseh V’Nishma” and we become a people united by our commitment to the Torah.  Hashem explains to us what this means.  He starts in Parashat Yitro with the 10 Commandments: We will need to honor Hashem and to honor each other.  We need to act justly.  
Then in Parashat Mishpatim, we get a lot more details about how we need to treat slaves and poor people and widows and strangers.

This would have been a nice place to end the sefer.  
But instead we get five parshiot about the building of the mishkan, it’s keilim, and the clothing of the kohanim, ending in our parasha with an emphasis on all the expense that went into the project.
Is this what we are about as a nation?  Golden furniture and jeweled clothing?  What was all the ceremony (Pomp?  Hoopla?) about?

Bnei Yisrael were not materialistic people.  They had been slaves for hundreds of years.  They suddenly had expensive things because Hashem instructed them to take them from the Egyptians before they left Egypt.  They could have hoarded it all for themselves, but all they ever wanted to do was to give it to Hashem.
When Moshe went up the mountain to get the luchot habrit, and the people thought he wasn’t coming back, they asked Aaron to make an “Elohim asher yeilchu lifaneinu,” and Aaron asked for the nizmei zahav asher b’oznei n’sheichem uv’noteichem.  According to Rashi, “Amar Aaron b’libo: Hanashim v’hayeladim chasim al tachshiteihen,” so they won’t agree and he can stall them.  But everyone rushed at the chance to donate their gold.  It seems they believed they could buy protection from G-d, and that’s how they wanted to spend their gold.  
When Hashem asked the people “K’chu m’itchem trumah Lashem kol nediv libo”, everyone again rushed to bring all their most precious medals and materials and stones, and people came to help with the work to make everything, until there was too much, and Moshe had to tell the people to stop.
Why was Hashem encouraging them to bring all their wealth?  Why wasn’t Hashem teaching them to save it for the poor and the needy?

In truth, there is some importance to appreciating nice and precious things.  Hashem created us to appreciate beautiful things, nice smells, delicious tastes, and beautiful music.  These are among Hashem’s gifts to us.  We read in the Talmud  about Rabbi who used to always carry money with him in case he would come across some sort of delicacy, so he would be able to appreciate all of G-d’s gifts.  But is this Hashem’s central message for sefer Shemot?  That we are a nation united by this beautiful structure we built?

In the community where we were living in America, we were part of a large and pretty wealthy shul, with a big, beautiful school.  I was a teacher in the school.  I remember a few years ago, when the economy     was starting to go bad, the head of schools, at the teacher’s meeting in the beginning of the year,  read us a beautiful letter written by two girls who were leaving the school because their parents could no longer afford to send them.  The girls wrote about how they are so grateful for their years in the school, and how they had gotten so much out of them.  They said that if their parents could find the money to pay for just one kid to go, neither of them would ask to go, but instead they would want to send their little sister, who had never had the amazing experience of studying there.  
That same year, the school built a new building for the lower school.  It was a beautiful building with all the most modern facilities.  The new school had these special  floors that had a big yellow swoop of blue and yellow down the middle—the school colors.  The floors looked so amazing they decided to redo the floors of the other branches of the school to match.  

As I sat in that staff meeting and listened to the head of school read that letter by the two girls, and everyone was crying, I was thinking to myself cynically, couldn’t they have left the old floors and paid to keep these girls in the school? After the meeting I said this to someone, and they pointed out that things don’t work that way.  The person who donated the money for the floors wanted the floors, and would not have necessarily agreed to donate instead for the scholarships.
And anyway, the people who pay $15,000 dollars per kid per year want the place to be beautiful.  There were many families whose children were receiving a Jewish  education in part because of the money spent to make it one of the best schools in the area, with all the best facilities.  

Also with the mishkan, the people were impressed and drawn in by the beauty and intricate detail of the structure.  They were also excited to be a part of making it happen.
So what did Hashem do?  Hashem honored their desire to create something magnificent for Hashem., but to do it in a way that would teach them the ultimate message.

The mishkan was designed to invite people in.  The outer courtyard was made with beautiful curtains and bronze.  This courtyard led to the inner courtyard, with more beautiful curtains, and more things from silver.  This led to the inner sanctuary, which most people would never see, but they knew it was covered in gold.  
The people had thought the gold would attract Hashem, but Hashem knew that the gold would attract the people and bring them near, where they could imagine what was inside.  Inside was the ark, made of gold, and inside the ark, in the very most inner part of the structure, the holiest, most valuable thing, was— Hashem’s laws—luchot habrit.  Two stone tablets, made of the cheapest material, containing G-d’s most precious gift. Of all G-d’s gifts, the greatest gift is that which G-d demands of us.  

The ark and the mishkan and the Temple will come and go, bit when Am Yisrael wants to find G-d, we just need to follow G-d’s laws—to act with  justice, to help the poor, widow and orphan, and to be kind to the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt.  When we do this, G-d will dwell among us, and this is, it seems to me, who we are as a people, and the culminating message of the book of Shemot.  


  1. Beautiful! I always have difficulty when I hear of people being turned away from schools or programs or hospitals, etc., at the same time the school or hospital is building a beautiful new wing "thanks to the generosity of Ploni ben Ploni." I understand the reasoning, but isn't it possible to ask for a scholarship program to be attached to the donation of a new wing? Who knows what the answer is.

    Em, did you give the drash in Hebrew or English? ;)

  2. A Hebrew that impressed everyone!