Blog: March 2007

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.


For as long as I can remember I have been a precise, detail-oriented person. When writing I strive to say exactly what I mean, particularly in the area of technical specifications and law. A misplaced comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence, and a poor choice of words can create ambiguity. I'm a nit-picker; I can't stand those sorts of errors in documents that really matter. (Don't worry; I'm not critiquing your casual email.)

I know this isn't a common trait; I've seen people's reactions. When I was on the board of this congregation I could recognize the concealed sighs when I said I had a question about a written policy. A realtor I was working with was not happy when I held up a house closing because the math looked wrong. But it's important to get these things right.

Now, this sort of thing can be taken to extremes; there is such a thing as worrying too much about details that ultimately don't matter. For years this has been my attitude toward several parshiyot at the end of Exodus. We get two weeks of painstaking details about how to build the mishkan, and then a break for the golden calf, and then two more parshiyot recording the actual building of the mishkan, with mostly the same text as before but with the verbs changed from "you will" to "they did". This seems like a lot of tedious detail and repetition. What's the point?

Then I realized that if I can take so much care in words and numbers, things that affect me and some other people but not the world or God, then how much the moreso would Yisrael take care in its relationship with God? Getting the details wrong wouldn't just be inconvenient; it could be deadly. Nadav and Avihu demonstrated that. It's important to leave nothing to chance or guesswork.

The people were given precise instructions, and the torah records them following those instructions precisely. What's the lesson for us? I don't think this is just a historical record; I think we're supposed to learn from this in our own dealings with God.

I've been studying talmud with a partner, and we're learning tractate B'rachot. Among things, it discusses the importance of being very precise in our recital of the Sh'ma. I often fall into rote recital, but after a recent study session I found myself actively concentrating during the Sh'ma and the paragraphs that follow. It's harder that way, but when I pronounce every word carefully, paying attention to subtle differences like tzere versus segol, paying attention to all the details, it makes a difference. I've elevated my recital of the Sh'ma from routine to active participation. I'm trying to do this with all my prayers. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but if I don't try I know it will never happen.

It's not just about prayers, either. When we say motzi before a meal, instead of rattling it off we can go more slowly and pay attention to what we're saying. We say God brings forth bread from the earth; how do we reconcile that with the fact that God makes wheat but people harvest and bake it? There are interesting theological questions there. Instead of just putting on a tallit, we can think about what this means -- are we just fulfilling a commandment, or is there some symbolism in wrapping ourselves in divine arms in the morning? When we gather the light of the Shabbat candles before saying the blessing, what does this say about the special nature of Shabbat? In the morning service, is there some significance to the fact that we say "Elohai neshama shentatah bi", "the soul that you have given in me" and not "to me"?

There are layers and layers of details in our words, in our actions, and in how we relate to God. Most of the time we don't notice them, but if we decide to stop and look at the details, they jump out. Maybe these parshiyot are here to suggest that we do that. I don't necessarily care deeply about the details of the construction of the high priest's garments, but the mere presence of those details reminds me that I should take care in the details of my own life.

Remember, God doesn't need the mishkan for him. It's for Yisrael, for us. We don't have a mishkan or a temple now, but we have other ways to relate to God, if we decide to pay attention.