Pikudei – the value of work

Below is the sermon I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel:

This week’s parshah, Pikudei, contains the final few examinations of the construction details of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary), and in addition this is Shabbat Shekalim – where we commemorate the half-shekel which was used to fund ongoing operations of the temple.
Last week, Rabbi Freundel spoke eloquently about how a reason for the multiple repetitions of the details regarding the construction of the mishkan was to show the perspective of the craftsman – that the ḥokhmat lev (wisdom of the heart) referred to is not that of the intellectual truth-seeker, but rather that of the craftsman who diligently examines objects from different perspectives so that the construction can be perfect in all of its details. I agree with his approach, and would like to take a few steps farther in that direction.
All of the categories of work which are prohibited on Shabbat derive from those tasks involved in the construction of the mishkan. Thus, the craftsmanship involved in the building of the mishkan has a significance which stretches out across the span of Jewish history.
So let’s survey the scene: you have a relatively large army of former slaves who have been led to freedom; they experienced the miracles at the Sea, where they were saved entirely by Divine might. They experienced the revelation at Sinai, where they heard the voice of God and then begged for their leader to be an intermediary so that they could survive. They get their food miraculously dropping from the sky every morning. Their water comes from a rock hit by Moses’ staff at God’s direction. We have traditions that no one’s shoes wore out during the entire time in the desert. Other than gathering the food that God directly provides, pretty much the entire work-effort of the whole society is spent crafting the mishkan. This begs a question: if such basic necessities such as food, water, and clothing are provided by God, why do the craftsmen need to build this at all?
Why doesn’t God just provide the space to worship Him, without making us build something? There are traditions that the Third Temple will appear fully formed and come down from Heaven and land on the temple mount, so why should the mishkan be any different?
I believe that I have an answer, but we’ll need to take a detour through Tehillim (psalms) to get there.
Moses surveys the completed mishkan, and observes that all of the craftsmen and workers had completed the work precisely in the way that the Lord had commanded it; he blesses the people, and according to Rashi, this is where the famous phrase “viyehi noam Adoni Eloheinu aleinu; uma’aseh yadeinu konenah aleinu, uma’aseh yadeinu koneneihu,”(May the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us; establish for us the work of our hands, let the work of our hands be established) is derived.
The twofold repetition of maaseh yadeinu – the work of our hands – is the first part of the answer. Repetition in Hebrew is a traditional signifier of extra intensity – thus “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh” means “holiest” not “holy, holy, holy.” With this in mind, we see that the work of our hands is called out as being extra significant, but that doesn’t get us to the answer yet.
Consider those things that God was providing directly – food & water. On multiple occasions, b’nei Yisrael showed something other than the gratitude expected of someone who has just received a lifesaving gift – rather, they complained, rebelled, and were generally stiff-necked. On a less prosaic level, even the gift of the redemption from Egypt was treated poorly: Moses had not been gone two fortnights before the people approached Aaron and dragooned him into making the golden calf. Clearly we were a people who were not so good at receiving gifts. So rather than providing us with a gift, God gave us a job, and b’nai Yisrael rose to the challenge.
So we could say that the people valued the mishkan more highly because of the work they themselves had invested in it.
But that isn’t the end of the story – let’s examine the purpose of the mishkan itself for a moment. God told us, back in parshat Terumah, “V’asu li mikdash, v’shaknanti b’tokham” (and they will make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them). As we discussed back in Vayeitze, the idea that God has a location is both heretical and a category error – so God dwelling among the people doesn’t refer to places where God is or is not. Instead, “among them” would probably be better phrased as “inside them” – the “them” being the people themselves.
So in exchange for the people doing some specific work, God will make His presence felt among the people. Back to Moses’ prayer: now that we’ve noted that the establishment of the work of our hands has been given extra emphasis, it becomes a fitting and balanced counterweight to the first clause, leaving us with a formulation ‘the work of our hands has been established, and the pleasantness of the Lord will dwell among us.”
We’re close to the answer now – the last piece of the puzzle is that Moses’ prayer, psalm 90, is the first non-shabbat prayer we say on Saturday night – it’s the way we begin the work-week. This prayer, to establish the work of our hands that God’s pleasantness will be upon us, is a charge to us to make our weekday craft and deeds as scrupulously careful as we would be about the construction of the sanctuary, or as careful as we would be about observing the laws of abstention from work on Shabbat. In doing so, the work of our hands becomes a means by which God will dwell inside us.
This prayer is our reminder that although we have the injunction that we must work for six days, the work we do is not a curse, but rather an opportunity to become a further partner with the Holy One, Blessed is He.
Shabbat shalom.

About thegameiam
I'm a network engineer, musician, and Orthodox Jew who opines on things which cross my path.

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