Transforming Thoughts into Deeds

March 24th: Vayakhel-Pekude and HaChodesh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, we have a triple portion in the Torah. For starters, we have the double portions of Vayakhel and Pekude that complete the Book of Exodus. Due to the extra month in leap years, the Torah is divided into enough portions so that every week can have its own. During non-leap years—and years when some holy days and Sabbaths coincide, Tradition calls on us to combine some portions and “use them up” before Simchat Torah. This is one of those weeks.

Then, because we are fast approaching Pesach, we have an extra portion reminding us that the month of Pesach is nigh: the New Moon of Nisan will be seen this coming Monday night. This extra portion is called HaChodesh (This Month) and details the procedures for the original Passover.

The details for observing the original Passover are quite specific. “On the tenth of this month, each Israelite shall take a lamb for a family, a lamb to a household…The lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male—though it may be either a goat lamb or a sheep lamb. You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of the month, and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter their lambs at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat the lambs. They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall it eat roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw, or boiled in water. It must be roasted over the fire—with the head, legs, and entrails all intact. You shall not leave any of it over until morning….Here’s is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand, and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (Exodus 12.3-11)

There are also a lot of details in the regular weekly double portion. While we already know about the detailed instructions for the Mishkan—since we are privy to what God tells Moses up on Mount Sinai during those forty days and forty nights, the people are not told until now: the freewill offerings that the Tent Temple requires and the instructions for the skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who will turn the raw materials into an elaborate physical home for God’s Presence. All those details in Terumah and Tetzaveh must now be given to the Israelites, and then, the Mishkan and its furniture and vessels have to be made. This is all recorded in the Torah, and it climaxes in Exodus 40.33: “When Moses had finished the work (of erecting and arranging everything), the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Mishkan/Tabernacle.” Our ancient ancestors build a place of holiness so that the Lord can dwell in their midst.

A common theme in these passages is the importance of transforming ideas into reality—of taking an ideal and then actually doing it. It reminds me of one of the verses in the old Spiritual, Joshua Fit the Battle:
     I know you heard about Joshua,
     He was the son of Nun,
     He never quit his work until
     Until his work was done.
     Up to the walls of Jericho,
     He marched with spear in hand.
     “Go blow them ram’s horns!” Joshua cried,
     “Cause the battle is in my hand!”

There’s something to be said for the value of sticking to our tasks until they are completed.

There is also importance of taking intellectual ideas and bringing them forth in the world. We who love scholarship and learning need to remember this lesson. Just knowing or understanding something is not enough; many concepts are eminently more valuable when they have been brought to fruition.

There is a reading in our prayer book which speaks of this reality, one I put together as a companion to the traditional prayer, Shochen Ad.
Shochen ad, marom v’kadosh Sh’mo…. You dwell in the heavens; holy is Your Name. It is written: “The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.” By the mouths of the upright are You acclaimed. By the words of the righteous are You praised. By the tongues of the faithful are You exalted. In the midst of the holy are You made Holy.

Here is the companion prayer:
The Aramaic term Sh’may d’Kud’sha means “God’s Holy Name,” but it can also mean “God’s Reputation,” and thus does it reflect a particular Divine vulnerability. God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s people. It is nice to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience, but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways. Praising God is fine, but praise from the righteous is what really counts. Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.
Having ideals is wonderful, but actualizing them and manifesting them in real life is so much more meaningful.

There is also the way that religious ritual and observance bring forth the thoughts of holiness that our Tradition has so ably put in our heads. It is one thing to think Judaism, but religious life offers us the ability to live Judaism. Indeed, this is one of the great appeals of our religions for me. In Judaism, I am given a kind of choreography of religiosity—with rituals, gestures, observances, and even clothing—that can give substance and expression to the internal values I find so profound.

Whether it is the ancient Passover (which we still observe) or the ancient Mishkan (which we just study), there is something to be said for taking the intellectual and spiritual concepts and making them real in the world. It is a holy task to which we are called.