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Serving Hashem with Style

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

Everything in the recent parshiot about the Mishkan seems so well-ordered and well-organized. Sometimes, the order is so… soothing that some of us find ourselves struggling to stay attentive as we read through these sections. If we stay focused, we see that the plans roll out in what seems like both fine detail and logical order… until this week!

If you’re following carefully, you will have noticed that the Torah begins the Mishkan story like this:

I. The general command to create a mishkan  (:-)

II. The Mishkan and its “Vessels”

a. Inner Vessels of the Mishkan: Aron, Shulchan, Menorah (:-)

b. Inner Mishkan: Curtains, Columns, Parochet, Masach (:-)

c. Outer Vessels of the Mishkan: Copper Altar (:-)

d. Outer Mishkan: the Courtyard (:-)

III. The Kohanim:

a. Clothing: Efod, Hoshen, Me’il, Tzitz, Ketonet, Mitznefet, Avnet, Migba’ot, Michnasayyim  (:-)

b. Ceremony of Consecration (:-)

Things seem to flow logically, from the general command to create a sanctuary for Hashem, to the specifics of the Mishkan (moving from inside-most to outside-most, i.e., from the contents of the Holy of Holies – the Aron – to the contents of the Holy – Shulchan and Menorah – and then to the structure of the Mishkan building itself, then the contents of the Courtyard – the Mizbe’ach – to the structure of the Courtyard itself), and then on to the uniforms of the Kohanim and the ceremony which will consecrate them and the Mishkan.

We think we’re done, right? And then the Torah presents the following surprise “appendix”:

IV. The Mishkan and its “Vessels”

a. Golden Altar (:-)

b. The Half-Shekel  (:-)

c. The Kiyyor (Sink) (:-)

d. Oil of Anointing, Ketoret  (:-)

Each of the elements above doesn’t belong here; each seems to have been “forgotten” from the section it should have been a part of earlier on! The Golden Altar, which is placed inside the Mishkan, should have been with the Shulchan and Menorah, way back in Perek 25; the half-shekalim, which were melted down and cast into silver “adanim” (sockets) which supported the walls of the Mishkan structure, should have been included with the section on the Mishkan structure in Perek 26; the Kiyyor, which is placed in the Courtyard between the Mishkan and the Mizbe’ach, should have been with the Courtyard contents in Perek 27; and the Oil of Anointing and Ketoret (incense) should probably have been in Perek 29, since the oil is a big part of the ceremony of consecration described there and ketoret will be part of the “grand opening.”

In short, each of these elements was “dropped” from the section where it should have appeared, and instead appears here – almost as if Hashem “forgot” to include them in the first edition of the Torah and had to stick them in later!

If we look carefully at these elements, we notice that they have something else in common: Not only are they all in the wrong place, but they all include a surprising and ominous element: a threat of death or dire punishment: Those who offer unauthorized ketoret are warned of death; those who count the Jewish people directly, without the intermediary of coins, are warned of plague and death; those who approach the Mishkan without having washed from the Kiyyor are warned of death; those who mix up a batch of the oil or the incense for personal use (or who use it for personal enjoyment) are warned of karet (spiritual death).

Why were these elements of the Mishkan “left out” of the sections in which they each belonged? And how do we explain the ominous threats of death which seem so strangely prominent here?

Perhaps what brings all of these elements together is that they all set the stage and create the right ambience and environment for serving Hashem. While none of them is in itself service of Hashem – none of these things is a korban, an offering to Hashem, or a way of communicating directly to Hashem – all of them set the stage and create the foundation which enable the actual service of Hashem to be what it should be. And that preparation is absolutely crucial, often making the difference between service which connects us and inspires us, and service which is robotic and unengaging.

Before the Mishkan could be used for actually serving Hashem, the oil of anointing had to sanctify the vessels and the Kohanim, setting them apart from everyday gold and jewels and dedicating them to their holy function; without that oil, they remain unsanctified, undedicated. Before we can serve Hashem, we need to prepare by setting the right tone. Failing to do so is likely to empty our service of Hashem of its power and meaning.

The ketoret (incense) and the altar on which it is offered create the right smell and ambience for serving Hashem. Serving Hashem never takes place in a vacuum; rather than ignoring our surroundings and just plowing ahead with the service, the Torah commands us to make our environment conducive to serving Hashem. Before we can serve Hashem, we need to prepare by setting the right tone. Failing to do so is likely to empty our service of Hashem of its power and meaning.

The silver of the half-shekel provides the foundation for the Mishkan walls, without which the walls could not stand. Often, we try to get right to the “walls” of serving Hashem and tend to skip over or rush through the “foundations.” Before we can serve Hashem, we need to prepare by setting the right tone. Failing to do so is likely to empty our service of Hashem of its power and meaning.

The Kiyyor sets the tone of sanctity by helping the Kohanim realize that each time they approach Hashem to serve Him, they must wash their hands of worldly involvement, cleanse their minds and focus on the holy opportunities before them. The same is true for us. Before we can serve Hashem, we need to prepare by setting the right tone. Failing to do so is likely to empty our service of Hashem of its power and meaning.

You and I don’t (yet) serve Hashem in the Mikdash. How do we prepare for our own service of Hashem? How do we set the tone?

Here are some examples: You are praying. But did you first set the tone? Setting the right tone for tefilah means dressing as if I’m about to meet someone important… like Hashem. It means washing my hands before tefilah, like a kohen about to enter the presence of Hashem and serve Him. It means choosing a location which is conducive to tefilah, free of distractions. It means taking a few moments to focus before tefilah, reminding myself that I am not about to recite words – I am about to speak to my God. It means reflecting on the events in my life which I want to bring into my tefilah, to share them with Hashem, to ask for help with them or to say thank you.

The same is true of learning Torah. I’m learning Torah, but if I failed to set the tone, if I approached this act just as I would approach learning history or biology or accounting or French, then I will not gain what I should gain from this learning. Am I dressed as I should be for one who is about to converse with Hashem, hearing from Him through his Torah? Did I remember to make the berachot one must make before learning Torah, which connect me to Hashem and highlight the privilege of being selected from all the world’s people to receive this Torah – or is this just another intellectual pursuit for me? What’s my posture like while learning – am I lounging at my ease, a drink in one hand and Doritos in the other, popping chips with my feet up as if I’m cramming for finals… or am I sitting with reverence and dignity, as befits the holiness of what I am engaged in?

By setting these elements apart, the Torah is teaching us that setting the right tone is crucial to the success of our Avodat Hashem. May we not only take time out of our busy lives to serve Hashem, speaking to Him and learning His Torah – may we also have the wisdom and patience to take a few moments to first set the right tone, to create the right environment, to surround ourselves with the thoughts, sights, sounds, and smells which will allow us to approach Hashem in the most meaningful way. 

Shabbat Shalom.





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