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Serving Hashem With Style

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

The command to construct the Mishkan begins with the instructions to create the Aron, Shulchan, andMenorah; continues with the details of the Mishkan structure itself, which houses these kelim; and ends with the instruction to create the Mizbe’ach, which stands outside the Mishkan, and the curtains of the Courtyard which surrounds the Mishkan. Finally, having finished with the Mishkan, its contents, and its surroundings, Hashem completes the picture with the commands to fabricate Bigdei Kehunah for the Mishkan’s human servants and to offer korbanot to inaugurate the Mishkan when everything’s ready. So far, so good.


And then, oddly, the Torah tacks onto the end some additional instructions – instructions which really should have been included in the very first set of commands (along with the Aron and other utensils). For some reason, the command to create the Mizbe’ach Ha-Ketoret and the incense which is burned on it, the Kiyyor(the water container used by the Kohanim to sanctify their hands and feet before serving), and the Shemen Ha-Mishchah (oil used for sanctifying utensils and people) was “left out” in the original instructions for the Mishkanand only “remembered” here. Why?


In addition to this anomaly, the Torah also throws into the middle of these “forgotten” instructions a seemingly unrelated command: the command to perform a census by not counting directly, but instead by collecting half-shekels and counting them instead. Ostensibly, the connection to the Mishkan is that the money is donated to the Mishkan in the end. But why is this inserted specifically here? What does it have to do with theseKelim?


If we look closely, we find two common denominators for all the elements in this “forgotten” section: First, they all relate to the manner of our approaching Hashem, rather than the substance of our approach. The substance would include, for example, the korbanot themselves, or the lechem ha-panim; the ketoret (incense), on the other hand, isn’t so much an offering in its own right as it is a way to set the environment, the right air, for bringing an offering; the Kiyyor aids the Kohanim to approach Hashem with the proper preparation of personalkedushah; and the Shemen Ha-Mishchah serves a similar function, sanctifying the Kelim and Kohanim to do the actual service. Similarly, the requirement to perform a census indirectly by counting coins is also not a command to actually perform a census – instead, it’s a description of how one properly counts.


The second common denominator all these instructions share is the surprising threat of death attached to each one. We are warned not to offer “strange incense” on the Mizbe’ach Ha-Ketoret, the misdeed which later took the lives of Nadav and Avihu; we are warned not to perform a regular census, since doing so would orcould trigger a plague; the Kohanim are warned (twice!) that approaching Hashem without washing will cost them their lives; and we are forbidden, on pain of karet (spiritual death), to concoct Ketoret or Shemen Ha-Mishchah for personal use. What’s so critical about these halakhot that justifies the draconian threat of death for violating them? After all, aren’t these just about the how, and not even about the what of Avodat Hashem?


The answer, perhaps, is that this is precisely the point. We might think that the manner in which we approach Hashem doesn’t matter as much as the substance, or doesn’t matter at all; after all, if we’ve offered the right offering at the right time, shaken the correct four species in the correct season, eaten the requisite matzah on the requisite night, what does it matter how we approach these mitzvot? For this reason, the Torah grouped our topics together, highlighting their common theme – preparation to approach Hashem, the creation of a certain environment – and clarifying that this preparation and the environment we create for our Avodat Hashemis absolutely critical, to the point of justifying the most drastic reaction when we neglect this aspect orconsider it peripheral.


Would anyone play basketball for an hour, working up a healthy sweat, and then go straight to a job interviewor a date, without first showering? Certainly not. But the same person might well go straight from the playing field to davening in shul without much thought.


Does anyone get dressed in the morning without giving thought to how she looks and whether her clothing is clean and matches? Certainly not. But the same person might think nothing of coming to the Shabbat table in sweats and a tee.


Would anyone get up and make a speech in front of a crowd of peers, or even family and friends, without first thinking carefully about what she wants to say? Certainly not. But the same person might well jump into davening or make a bracha without giving any preparation to what she wants and needs to say to Hashem, proceeding entirely on autopilot.


May we be zocheh to always be in style, physically and spiritually – to always pay as much attention to spiritual detail as to physical detail; to always prepare spiritually as thoroughly as we prepare physically; and to create an environment as pleasing and conducive spiritually as that we work so hard to create physically.





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