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Pekudei 5779 - May Hashem Bless our Handiwork!

03/13/2019 04:44:58 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

There are 63 yerios in the Torah that I am writing—63 pieces of parchment.  On each yeriah there are four amudim (columns).  While working on the second amud of yeriah 41, I lost concentration for a moment, accidentally skipped a line, and wrote the name of Hashem in the wrong place, twice.  When I learned that I did this I felt nauseous.  I remember the moment very clearly.  I had woken up super early and had written the Torah for over two hours before davening.  I was feeling super accomplished and then I saw my mistake.  Making a scribal mistake is not unusual for me.  I often make scribal mistakes and I simply erase the mistake with my knife and electric eraser.  But this time it was different.  This time my mistake was in writing the name of Hashem correctly, but in the wrong place.  It is against the Torah to erase the name of Hashem.  So I looked at the parchment in disbelief.  I am not even sure how I did it, but I was horrified.  I thought I would have to bury the parchment.

Later that day I called my friends at Merkaz Hasofrim.  They are Chassidic sofrim who work in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  I explained to them what happened.  At the initial level they were also pessimistic about saving the yeriah and thought that I would have to bury the parchment.  But then they brought the matter to the rabbi in charge there—an expert sofer named, R. Shimon Zeide.  He said he could do a technique that would save the parchment.  It is called kolef sheimos, peeling the name, and entails carefully shaving the parchment so that the entire name of Hashem comes up from the parchment as a single unit.  Not all poskim approve of this technique, as it is risky, because if a person makes a mistake then he is destroying the name of Hashem.  R. Shimon Zeide also does not like to do this technique in general as he is very afraid of destroying the name, but in this case he said he would do it for me.
From the perspective of time and money, the logical approach would have been to bury the parchment.  But I couldn’t bear to bury the words of Torah on that page so I waited for an occasion that I would anyways be in NY and I paid a visit to the scribal shop in Williamsburg.

The experience of watching R. Shimon Zeide patiently shave the name of the parchment was awesome.  Working extremely carefully and slowly, he switched blades over ten times and after over an hour he was able to lift up the two names. I was spellbound the entire time.  For me it was an awesome experience to see.  It wasn’t just that I was seeing something for the first time.  It was more than that.  It was an incredible spiritual experience for me. 

What made it so special was seeing the devotion, precision, dedication, and expertise of this sofer in service of Hashem.  During those moments of his working on the name of Hashem, he took as much care as any diamond cutter or surgeon.  He was using his entire body to serve Hashem.  I found it inspiring to be in his presence.

That experience that I felt that day is really what our portion is about.


Reading this portion as a young boy I remember noticing that there was hardly any Rashi commentary on it.  There is not too much commentary on Pekudei in general.  Indeed, most of the portion is just a repetition of Terumah-Tetzavah.  The earlier portions tell us how to build the mishkan and our portion, pekudei, just tells us that indeed the benei yisrael built the mishkan exactly like Hashem commanded Moshe.

Eighteen times in our portion it says that the benei yisrael built the mishkan, kaasher tzivah Hashem et Moshe, just like Hashem commanded Moshe.

Why does our Torah have to tell us this 18 separate times?  Once would have been enough.  

This is a popular question, without too many good answers.  For me, the very question itself reveals the problem.  

This question is for the most part asked by scholars who were not engaged in heavy construction and manual labor. On the other hand, the people who actually built the mishkan put a lot of hard work and hours into each item and therefore each act of labor deserves a verse in its own right.  

But more than that, the work involved in building the mishkan was not ordinary construction work.  It was special work—it was the building of the mishkan.  It was an avodah -- a service to Hashem.

The Jerusalem Talmud says that every day we recite the amidah of 18 blessings because it corresponds to the 18 times it says kaasher tzivah (they did as they were commanded) in our portion.

What is the connection between kaasher tzivah and the amidah?

The answer is that just like prayer is a service of Hashem, so too the building of the mishkan is an avodah or service of Hashem.

Can you imagine if we were commanded to build the mishakan today?  The first thing we would do is put out multiple bids and engage a General Contractor to actually take on the project.  When reading this portion today, how many of us clearly see that the commandment is not only for the mishkan to be built, but for us to build the mishkan?

We take this same approach to too many of our mitzvot today.  

We in the “Modern Orthodox” community basically outsource our mitzvot either to China or to Chareidim. Many of us have our sukkot produced in China, Pesach Sedarim prepared for us in hotels, and a tallit bought online.  In each discrete case there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking this approach, but when we look at our faith as a whole, and the way it is practiced in our larger community today, we have lost this aspect of worshipping Hashem through service.

That’s what writing the Torah means to me.  

It is fundamentally a mitzvah from Hashem.  We are commanded to write a Torah.  If that’s the case then why is actually writing it ourselves virtually ignored by almost every Jewish school.  Can you imagine if upon graduation from Jewish Day School, each student was given a quill and told to begin this project of writing a Torah with the expectation that they would work on it throughout their lifetime?  It is not too hard to do.  It took me—a person with no artistic skill—less than two months to learn how to do it.

Writing the Torah is a service—an avodah for Hashem.  Just like prayer is a service—and we would never think it is ok to hire someone to pray for us, so too doing our mitzvot is a service.  

I love doing mitzvot with my entire body and not just my mind.  It is spiritually transformative.  I feel this way when I go to the mikvah and when I shake the lulav and etrog. 

We Jews like to say with pride that we are people of the book.  But that hyper focus on the intellect shouldn’t come at the expense of serving Hashem with our bodies.  There are so many ways to serve Hashem, that go beyond the book.  For example, cooking for Shabbat is an avodah.  I don’t love to cook, but I do love to cook for Shabbat.  Cleaning our houses for Shabbat is another avodah. I don’t love to clean, but I love to clean for Shabbat.  One of my rebbeim, R. Yosef Weiss, z”l, once told us that the great, R. Akiva Eiger, used to specifically clean his house by himself for Shabbat, as that was his avodah of Hashem.  

After I visited the scribal shop in Williamsburg, I went to a Matzah factory in Boro Park in order to buy shmurah flour for us to bake our matzah.  Baking matzah is also an avodah.  It is a service of Hashem. Sure we can buy the matzah, but if we do so then we will be missing out on the avodah of making the matzah.

I studied in a yeshiva educational system for 20 years.  Do you know how many classes I had on the topic of how to write a Torah or on how to bake matzah?  

Zero!  As a Jewish community we have completely abandoned these mitzvot.

I had many lessons on the symbolism of matzah and a Torah scroll.   But on how to actually do it—nope, not a single one!

It is such a shame, because when I do these two activities I feel so close to Hashem.

For the overwhelming majority of the affluent Orthodox, we are simply an intellectual faith.  And to the extent that we are spiritual it finds expression only in music or social action activities like visiting the sick and helping the poor.

But what about the experiential!

What about engaging in the mitzvah with our entire bodies!

The amazing thing about an experiential mitzvah is that it can relate to us no matter where we are intellectually. 

This past Sunday over 25 people came to write the Torah in my office at different times.  They ranged in ages from very young to very old, as the power of the experiential spans generations.  I have seen 2 year olds looking with awe at the Torah, and 98 year olds crying as they help me write a letter.

Not only does the larger Orthodox community not encourage this experiential activity, it actually strongly discourages it.

One person in our congregation told me a story that when he was at Yeshiva University he was taking a class in safrus.  He was so excited with what he learned that when he went back to his hometown he did some work on a Torah scroll that needed minor repairs.  He told me that when he told this to his teacher he was sternly rebuked for engaging in this activity without being a sufficient expert and as a result he never returned to safrus.  

When we started baking matzah in our shul, I went to the YU Torah website to see if there were any classes on how to bake matzah.  There was one class on the topic.  I turned on the podcast and the rabbi started the class by saying, “whatever you do, don’t bake matzah.”  He then spent the class poking fun at a person who actually was baking his own matzah.

One person wrote on my Facebook page that they always wanted to try safrus, but were afraid of making a mistake.

I responded that we can’t live in fear of making a mistake in our religious performance.  I don’t believe that Hashem is asking for perfection from us, but rather for service and effort.  

So many of us are afraid to do these mitzvoth because we are afraid of making a mistake.

Do you know who else was afraid to engage in avodah before Hashem?

Moshe Rabbenu!

Rashi tells us that when all the parts of the Mishkan were ready to be assembled, Moshe turned to Hashem and said, “Eikh efshar hakamato al yedei adam, How can a person possibly put this Mishkan together?”

Hashem responded, “asok beatzmechah, you do it, and I will help you” (Rashi, 39:33).

This is the promise of Hashem.  If we do it then Hashem will help us!

When the Moshe saw that all the labor for the Mishkan was completed, he looked at the work and blessed the people.  

He said, “Yehi ratzon shetishreh shekhinah bemaaseh yedeichem, May it be that the Divine Presence will rest upon your handiwork” (Rashi, 39:43).

Wow!  What a blessing.  

Our larger Jewish community desperately needs to be invigorated.  

Serving Hashem through maasei yedeichem needs to become a part of our curriculum and our lives.

I am %75 done with the writing of the Torah.  Most of our shul has joined me for the writing of the Torah and if you still haven’t done that then I invite you to meet me in my office before I finish writing the text.  

People sometimes ask me, “how are you going to sew it together?”  I say I’m not going to sew it together.

WE will sew it together.  We will line up throughout the entire sanctuary and begin sewing the Torah.  Then we will attach it to the etz chayim that members of our community have lovingly fashioned.  Then we will gently place over it a mantle that our artists have beautifully designed.  Then we will read from the entire Torah.  Starting early on a Sunday morning we will read the entire Torah from start to finish.  

I am hoping that bnai mitzvah will read their portions, past and future.  But everyone in our congregation can learn to read at least one verse and be part of this special occasion.  

I feel that this Torah is our avodah, our offering to Hashem.  It is our opportunity for Moshe Rabbenu to look down upon us and say, ““Yehi ratzon shetishreh shekhinah bemaaseh yedeichem, May it be that the Divine Presence will rest upon your handiwork.”

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780