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Mitzvot Minus Meaning

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

Parshat Ki Tisa opens with instructions for creating the final few items remaining for the completion of the Mishkan.  Included among these last items are the kiyyor, which held water for the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before they performed avodah (service) for Hashem; the shemen ha-mishchah, fragrant oil used to bestow kedushah (sanctity) on people and objects; and the ketoret, the custom-made incense burned in the Mishkan to create a pleasant fragrance in Hashem's earthly abode.

By placing these items last among all the elements of the Mishkan, the Torah may be hinting that they themselves are not the substance of Avodat Hashem, but instead part of the environment, ambience, or preparation.  The shemen ha-mishchah helps designate objects or people with holiness, enabling them to serve in their exalted function; the ketoret provides a pleasing sensory backdrop for the korbanot (sacrifices) of each day; and the kiyyor enables Hashem's servants to purify themselves as they approach Him.


If these items are indeed secondary, and if all they do is set the tone for the truly important acts of Avodat Hashem, why did Chazal give them the prominence of serving as the opening for the parshah? Why not append them to the end of last week's parshah, Parshat Tetzaveh, where they would fit better as a kind of "postscript"?


Perhaps the Torah is anticipating that we ourselves may often relegate the stage of preparation for Avodat Hashem to the level of "postscript," or even dispense with it altogether for the sake of convenience or because we don't appreciate its significance. Think about it: You grabbed five minutes to daven Minchah -- are you going to spend one of those minutes sitting quietly with your eyes closed, preparing to stand before Hashem by divesting your mind of the distractions of the day and focusing on what it means to stand before your Creator? You just went to the restroom, or you just finished a great meal and it's time to say Al Ha-Michyah or Birchat Ha-Mazon -- am I going to remember that it's important to first set the tone for what I'm about to do, to think about why I'm doing it and the content of what I'm about to say to Hashem? Or will I just jump right in and perform the act itself without the preparation?

The truth is that we're correct if we believe that the act itself is most significant, and that the preparation is secondary. But in many situations, skipping the preparation can not only render the act far less meaningful, but can even reduce it to a robotic exercise which fails to achieve the mitzvah. If I say Shemoneh Esrei, for example, without the consciousness that I am standing before Hashem and communicating with Him, then in halakhic fact, I haven't davened at all, even if I've said every word. A mitzvah performed on autopilot, with no preceding awareness that I am doing a mitzvah, is no mitzvah at all; in other words, "mitzvot tzrichot kavanah."


Even if we manage to get the mitzvah by scraping by with a bare consciousness of mitzvah intent, consider how much we lose by skipping those precious seconds of preparation. Instead of stopping my humdrum day for periodic conversations with Hashem -- asking for His help with something that really matters to me, thanking Him for that chocolate bar and for helping keep my body running, reflecting briefly on how everything happening, no matter how chaotic it seems or how disastrous at the moment, is part of His plan -- I run through a day devoid of inspiration and spirituality, devoid of contact with and comfort from Hashem... even though I say every berachah and daven every davening and don't skip any of my mitzvah opportunities.


It all depends on those few seconds -- the time we take to set the tone, to disengage from the rush, to focus on what we're doing and appreciate its full significance. The smell of the ketoret, though intangible, changed the atmosphere of the Mishkan entirely; the touch of the shemen ha-mishchah transformed its recipient into a being on a higher level; simply washing his extremities prepared a kohen to handle holiness, to invest every act of Avodah with its full due. Before we turn to perform a mitzvah, let us take ten seconds to reflect. Let us wash our hands before davening, learning, or even eating, appreciating what we are about to do. Let us fill our Avodat Hashem not only with busy activity, but also with the fragrance to make the entire experience sweet.




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