Do it your own way Not if you want to serve HaShem

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Shabbat HaChodesh
Vayakhel Pekudei
Exodus 35:1-40:38, 12:1-20
Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

“And they made the holy vestments … as G-d had commanded Moses.” (Exodus 39:1) No fewer than 18 times in Parashat Pekudei do we come across the expression “Ka’ashei tzivah HaShem et Moshe,” “as G-d commanded Moses.” This emphasizes the exemplary manner in which the Jewish people complied with G-d’s word in completing the task of building the Tabernacle in the desert.

In truth, the Torah’s final observation that “All the work was done as G-d commanded” should have been enough to inform us that the Jewish people had discharged their obligation efficiently.

Why is their meticulous performance so surprising and so significant? Would it be unreasonable to expect that they would have executed the activities that were commanded in the prescribed manner?

The simple answer to that question is yes. A study of human nature readily reveals that when people are instructed to do something in a specific way, often, after all is said and done, they do it “their way.” For example, when we are invited to be at an event at a particular time, many of us will arrive at approximately that time. Being late is no longer “fashionable,” but has become almost imperative.

Rabbi Boruch Ezrachi, a well known rosh yeshiva (head of a religious school) in Jerusalem, comments on this phenomenon by suggesting that it stems from our deep-seated resistance to accepting authority. (This is the reason that we receive greater reward for fulfilling a commandment than for voluntarily doing a mitzvah for which we are not obligated.) We need to feel empowered, to give orders rather than to accept them. This subconscious drive manifests itself (among other ways) in our doing things “approximately the prescribed way.” Arriving at a destination more or less at the designated time is our way of maintaining our sense of control.

Our forefathers were able to transcend this attitude and to submit to G-d’s will. It is our virtue to have the capacity to surrender ourselves to the Almighty completely, not in an obsequious way, but with pride in our service to G-d. Service to G-d is just that: service without embellishment or personal agenda — just to do as G-d commanded.

Rabbi Ezrachi further observes that when following an instruction it is possible not only to diverge negatively, but we can even unintentionally integrate our own positive ideas or emotions into the project. This, too, is a departure.

We find that Moses’ brother Aaron, the high priest, is praised for preparing the golden menorah exactly as he was commanded by G-d. Rabbi Ezrachi explains that although Aaron would never have erred by doing something improper, he might have (with the best of intentions) added a personal emotion or a special prayer. He might have added jewels or flowers to the menorah to enhance its beauty. In no way did Aaron supplement G-d’s mitzvah with his own personal feelings or ideas. His devotion to the Almighty was total.

We live in an age when, to paraphrase the song, we proudly “do it our way.” Accepting authority is perceived as demeaning or foolish. We develop our own attitude toward mitzvah observance. We like one type of ritual, while the other is somehow inconsistent with our point of view (thereby in essence worshipping ourselves).

Apropos this concept, the famous rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveichik, of blessed memory, pointed out that in biblical times, the non-Jews were confused when they saw the Aron (ark) that housed the Ten Commandments, with its sculpted golden angels. They surmised that Judaism sanctioned a form of idol worship by what they perceived as an apparent breach of monotheistic practice (the graven angelic images).

Rabbi Soloveichik explains that the difference between virtuous subservience to G-d and concession to paganism is entirely dependent on those few but compelling words, “As G-d commanded Moses.” A particular action, the rabbi explained, might be prohibited but a comparable activity mandated by the Torah is a mitzvah. In fact, our sages taught that every prohibited deed has a parallel action that the Torah allows. By subjecting their own sense of aesthetics and logic to G-d’s will, the Jewish people became His true servants enabling the Shechinah, G-d’s presence, to dwell in their midst.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.