On Being A Jewish Installation–Pekudei 5776

One of the hardest adjustments for me as a young rabbi in a large suburban synagogue in Michigan was learning how to sit on the raised bimah of our enormous sanctuary, which sat 1,500 on the holidays, and frequently held 500-800 people on Shabbat. I learned the costume—dark suit, black shoes, white shirt and tie—and even a black robe that I was asked to wear for the first 5 years (that went away my first Shabbat as senior rabbi). But it was not only the clothes that felt formal and foreign. Sitting on that big chair looking out at the congregation always felt strange. Suddenly my prayer life was not primarily internal but was on full display—how I sat, how I stood, how I spoke and how I greeted people as they came and went for aliyot was all a highly scrutinized behavior. It was completely the opposite of my naturally informal spiritual state.

I chafed at the formalism, including the policy that my young children could not come visit me on the bimah until Adon Olam.  Nevertheless, with time I came to understand the importance of modeling worship for the culture of this community. Entering the sanctuary, the people wanted to see their clergy in place on the bimah, to hear the sounds of Jewish worship, and to feel connected to earlier generations of their family and to Jewish communities across the world, all celebrating Shabbat or the festivals in one (somewhat dissonant) global chorus.  My task, as I came to understand it, was simultaneously to cultivate this spiritual decorum and at times also to disturb it by making intentional variations from the script in order to shake people out of their trance-like state of formal worship (or lethargy). The tools varied—from humor, to song, to movement, to political statements—but the goal was to make the experience real and alive even while preserving the dignity and beauty that people craved in these sacred moments of their week.

The tension between religious stability and dynamism, between formality and unscripted expression, is itself an enduring feature of worship for Jews and other religious cultures. In the priestly sections of the Torah such as Parashat Pekudei, the sense of order is dominant and indeed overwhelming. Consider for example, Exodus 40, which includes aliyot 5-7, and concludes the second book of our Torah. Verses 1-11 describe the process of installing the objects that comprised the tabernacle, and their anointment with oil for the purpose of consecrating them to divine service. Verses 12-16 are a parallel, but this time it is people who are installed, anointed and consecrated to divine service. Aaron and his sons are treated like passive objects—Moses is told to “bring” the priests to the Tent of Meeting, to wash them, to dress them, to anoint and consecrate them. There is only one verb employed to describe their own actions—וכהנו   לי,  they shall serve  for me as priests—and this action is itself entirely scripted.

How do you imagine it felt to be one of those priests? Did they chafe at the detailed regulations of their every movement, or did they consider it to be a high honor? Probably both, I expect, just as I experienced the bimah of my shul. However, there was likely another sensation as well—vast responsibility. The priests of Israel—like their counterparts in other religions—felt that they had “the whole world in their hands.” That is, the service that they performed was a sustaining action for the universe.

This grandiose sensibility is attested to in ancient midrashim about the tabernacle. When God says, “they shall serve for Me as priests,” that word “for Me” (li) is reminiscent of other times when God designates people, places or objects as “for me.” In Midrash Sifrei B’Midbar 92, and in a parallel text at Vaykra Rabba 2:2 (among others), the sages collect all of the times when God uses this expression, “for me.” As Sifrei puts it, “wherever it says “for me,” this [refers to an action that] sustains the world and all worlds forever.” The elders of the Sanhedrin sustain the world through the practice of justice; and the Kohanim, Levites and Israelites each sustain the world through their respective ritual functions. So too are the land of Israel, Jerusalem, the temple, the Davidic monarchy and the sacrifices all “for Me,” says God, and “they will never depart forever.”

What a strange and counterfactual claim! By the time the rabbis were writing these words, almost all of these institutions were extinct. There was no monarchy, no temple, no priesthood, no Sanhedrin and not even a Jewish community left in Jerusalem. What could the sages possibly have meant when they described these ancient functions as world-sustaining and permanent? In his Book of Commandments (+176) Rambam says that these commandments were constant (matmid) and for all generations, but Ramban notes the time-specific nature of these ceremonies of ordination, seeing them more as examples to be followed by later generations, each in its own way. Rambam sees the current state of the world as temporary—we must act as if the restoration of the monarchy and temple is imminent and treat these mitzvot as ready for implementation at a moment’s notice. Ramban seems more realistic—the early ordinations were examples, and it is upon each generation to show similar dedication in its own way.

Perhaps it is the very extensiveness of the Midrashic list that is most significant. The sages saw each sacred function as essential, and yet they also noted a spiritual redundancy, where each act of religious leadership was itself sufficient. Every person is a world until him or herself, and yet every person is mortal. Every institution is indispensable, and yet there is always another institution to fill the needed function. This is a necessary paradox. We must act in the world as if each life has infinite value, and we must function in our religious roles like the entire world depends upon our service. And yet, we also know that each life will end, and no person is truly indispensable, no matter how wise, virtuous and talented they may be. 

When we lead the people in worship, it is worth looking to the divine service of Aaron and his sons. We too are “installed” into sacred functions, and we too have an important role that must be played and played very well indeed. We too must at times forfeit our personal sense of style and interest for the sake of the public that looks to us for leadership. And we too must believe that the stakes could not be higher—that the world depends on our serving God with utter devotion. And at the same time, we must remember that in the end we will never be perfect in our service, and that we alone cannot suffice. Inhabiting this paradox, we may model devotion for others, and then welcome others to stand in our place. In this way the sacred service can indeed become permanent—though the people, the places and the objects will shift, the objective will remain constant. To sanctify our lives in service of God, with reverence, with devotion and with the special form of joy that comes from outgrowing individual identity and becoming part of a community that transcends time and space. 

שמות פרק מ 

  יב)   וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְרָחַצְתָּ אֹתָם  בַּמָּיִם: 

  (יג)   וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ אֶת אַהֲרֹן אֵת בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ אֹתוֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֹתוֹ וְכִהֵן  לִי: 

  (יד)   וְאֶת בָּנָיו תַּקְרִיב וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם כֻּתֳּנֹת: 

  (טו)   וּמָשַׁחְתָּ אֹתָם כַּאֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ אֶת אֲבִיהֶם  וְכִהֲנוּ   לִי  וְהָיְתָה לִהְיֹת  לָהֶם מָשְׁחָתָם לִכְהֻנַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתָם: 

  (טז)   וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְדֹוָד אֹתוֹ כֵּן עָשָׂה:  

ספרי במדבר פיסקא צב ד”ה אספה לי 

 אספה לי שתהא סנהדרין לשמי שבכל מקום שנאמר לי הרי זה קיים לעולם  ולעולמי עולמים בכהנים הוא אומר  וכהנו   לי   (שמות כח מא)   בלוים הוא אומר  והיו לי הלוים  (במדבר ח יד)   בישראל הוא אומר כי לי בני ישראל עבדים   (ויקרא כה נה)   [בארץ הוא אומר כי לי הארץ  (שם /ויקרא כ”ה/ כג)  ] בבכורות  הוא אומר כי לי כל בכור בבני ישראל  (במדבר ח יז)   במקדש הוא אומר ועשו  לי מקדש  (שמות כה ח)   במזבח הוא אומר מזבח אדמה תעשה לי  (שם /שמות/ כ כ)    בשמן המשחה הוא אומר שמן משחת קודש יהיה זה לי  (שם /שמות/ ל לא)    במלכות הוא אומר כי ראיתי בבניו לי מלך  (שמואל א’ טז א)   בקרבנות הוא  אומר להקריב לי במועדו  (במדבר כח ב)   הא בכל מקום שנאמר לי הרי זה קיים  לעלם ולעולמי עולמים.  

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה ב ד”ה ב הבן יקיר 

 ב הבן יקיר לי בכל מקום שנא’ לי אינו זז לעולם לא בעוה”ז ולא לעולם הבא,  בכהנים כתיב  (שמות מ)    וכהנו   לי , בלוים כתיב  (במדבר ח)   והיו לי הלוים,  בישראל כתיב  (ויקרא כה)   כי לי בני ישראל, בתרומה כתיב  (שמות כה)   ויקחו  לי, בבכורות כתיב  (במדבר ג)   כי לי כל בכור, בסנהדרין כתיב  (שם /במדבר/  יא)   אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל, בארץ ישראל  (שמות יט)   כי לי כל  הארץ, בירושלים  (מלכים א יא)   העיר אשר בחרתי לי, במלכות בית דוד   (שמואל א ט”ז)   כי ראיתי בבניו לי מלך, במקדש  (שמות כה)   ועשו לי מקדש,  במזבח  (שם /שמות/ כ)   מזבח אדמה תעשה לי, בקרבנו,  (במדבר כ”ח)   תשמרו  להקריב לי, בשמן המשחה  (שמות ל)   שמן משחת קדש יהיה זה לי, הא בכל מקום  שנא’ לי אינו זז לא לעוה”ז ולא לעוה”ב.  

ספר המצוות לרמב”ם מצות עשה קעו 

  וכבר נכפל הצווי הזה למנות שבעים זקנים והוא  אמרו ית’ למשה (בהעלותך יא) אספה לי שבעים איש ואמרו (ספרי) כל מקום  שנאמר לי הרי הוא קיים כמו  וכהנו   לי  [תצוה כח מא] וכו’. כלומר שהוא דבר  מתמיד ואינה מצוה לפי שעה אבל הוא ראוי ומחויב לדורי דורות.  

השגות הרמב”ן לספר המצוות שורש ג ד”ה ועוד אמר 

  ויכולנו לומר שהכוונה במאמרים הללו  שאין פרטי פרשת המילואים צריכי’ לנו שאינם עתידין לחזור על השיעור  ההוא והסדר ההוא והיה די מכל הפרשה בכתוב (תצוה כח) ומשחת אותם  ומלאת את ידם וקדשת אותם  וכהנו   לי , אבל הנראה אלי כי המלואים שהקריבו  על הכהנים למלא את ידם לכהן לא היו אלא לשעה כי בעת ההיא הבדיל אהרן  וזרעו להקדישו קדש קדשים לדורות עולם אבל היו שם מילואים עוד על  המזבח להקדישו דכתיב (שם כט) ופר חטאת תעשה ליום על הכיפורים וחטאת  על המזבח בכפרך עליו וכתיב שבעת ימים תכפר על המזבח וקדשת אותו,  והמילואים האלו הם שהקריבו בימי עזרא כי היה המזבח החדש צריך מילואים  לקדשו כראשון בימי משה.