It was only a fraction of a moment of my time in the army, but it was a lesson I never forgot, though to this day I am undecided as to whether I agree with it.
We were still in basic training, and my folks were landing at the airport the next afternoon. I was desperate to get a day off.
It was Thursday, which was the best possible day of the week for a tank crewman to get extra leave. Thursday was “Tipul She’vui” day, which meant the weekly servicing and cleaning of every last inch of every tank, top to bottom. In the Israeli army, there are no special maintenance crews that tag along to service the tanks. Add to that the fact that my unit was meant to get out for Shabbat (Friday morning after inspection), and special leave on Thursday would mean a pass all the way till Sunday.
This was why I was standing at attention in the glaring sun, waiting for my sergeant to return with the answer to my properly formatted request for a special day’s leave. Afraid to dream in case I was disappointed, I couldn’t help myself; visions of a hot bath, a night out on the town, and a real bed with clean sheets swam before my eyes.
The sergeant came out of the command tent a few minutes later, and I was shocked to see he actually had a smile on his face — I had never seen the muscles in his jaw work that way before — and then the one word I had been waiting for: “Be’seder” (“OK”).
“Be in your dress uniform at 0800 hours, and your extra day’s leave is granted.”
I couldn’t help myself; a huge grin spread across my face, and I felt like dancing, and then that one terrible word escaped, the one I still remember: “Todah.” (“Thank you.”)
I could tell I was in trouble as soon as the words left my lips; his eyes changed first, then his entire face, and then the glare we all feared, the one that meant you were about to get a serious work-out.
“Mah Zeh?” (“What’s that?”)
Although I did end up getting out, albeit a good few hours later than I had hoped, I never worked so hard for a pass in my life. You see, in the army, you don’t say thank you.
After running around the base seven times singing “Lo’ Omrim Todah,” “Todah Al Kol Mah’ She’Barata,” and every other song with the word todah in it that I could think of, they finally let me go, but the message would stay with me forever.
The army is about orders and commands. There is no “thank you” and no “you’re welcome.” You do what is expected of you because that’s your job.
“Thank you” implies the possibility you didn’t have to do what it was you were doing, and that you deserve to be thanked for going ahead and doing it anyway. Something has always bothered me about this approach, which never worked for me as a commander.
• • •
This week’s portion, Pekudei, includes a case in point: “And all the work of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was completed, and the children of Israel did all that Hashem had commanded them, so they did (ken asu).” (Shemot 39:32)
Of course they did! If G-d commanded you to do something, wouldn’t you do it?
The Torah adds: “And all that Hashem commanded Moshe, so did the children of Israel do: all of the labor.” (39: 42). And then: “Moshe saw all the labor, and behold they did it just as Hashem had commanded, so did they did it, and Moshe blessed them.” (39: 43)
Why, all of a sudden, does Moshe bless them? Is Moshe thanking them? Since when does Moshe say thank you to the Jewish people for doing what Hashem has asked of them?
Now that the Mishkan has been completed, the Torah gives us what is essentially a treasurer’s report of the collections tally; an accounting of all the income and outlay, and a list of all of the items produced in the making of the Mishkan, down to the last detail. Why is there a need to devote an entire portion to such a detailed list?
The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin in the mid-nineteenth century), points out in his “Ha’Emek Davar” (39:42) that the tendency of most people who are in pursuit of great dreams is to go far beyond the tasks at hand; people tend to get so “carried away” by the process, that they forget what the purpose was in the first place.
Indeed, the prelude to this challenge was found in last week’s portion, Va’Yakhel. The people were so excited at the prospect of building the Mishkan, and perhaps so moved by the opportunity to atone for their mistake in building a golden calf, that they could not donate enough goods for the Mishkan. Every morning the piles of material grew at an astounding rate (36:3) until the artisans responsible for the execution of the project could not keep up with the influx of material.
“And they said to Moshe, saying: the people are bringing too much, there is more material than is necessary for the work Hashem has commanded (us) to do.” (36:4)
Moshe actually tells the people to stop bringing goods to donate to the tabernacle: “And Moshe commanded and the word was spread throughout the camp saying: let every man and woman do no more work for the donation to the holy, and the people ceased bringing.” (36:6)
Why not just keep collecting the money, and put it away for a rainy day?
Perhaps what was really at the root of this dialogue was not what the people were bringing, but rather how they were bringing it. What might have been troubling Moshe and the artisans was that the people were so caught up in the zeal of giving to G-d, they had lost any connection to actually building the Mishkan — it had become about them, and their giving, rather than about G-d, and how to bring Hashem into the world.
So Moshe stops the giving, and reminds people not to forget the importance of the becoming. And that message is followed by this week’s portion which teaches us not to forget the power and the importance of the details.
• • •
This is a crucial part of life which stands at the root of all of our relationships and all of our dreams. Healthy marriages don’t last on walks in the park and candlelit dinners; the garbage has to be taken out and the kids have to be taken to school with their lunches made every morning.
Before people get married, they often talk about their shared dreams and goals, and what sort of a home they hope to build together. But they rarely get to think about who picks up the dirty socks, and what happens when the laundry basket is full at the end of a long day. Healthy relationships last because the parties involved are willing to share the burden of all the chores and details which must be done to allow for the accomplishment of the wonderful goals that were ever-present in the beginning.
And the Torah wants us to value those details as much as we do the bigger picture.
Perhaps the point of this week’s parsha is that if the details are just “the burden of all the chores and details which must be done,” then we are missing the most beautiful part of the process, which is to embrace the detail as part of a larger picture.
You can clean up the kitchen because someone has to do it, and how could you not at least clean up the kitchen? But you can also clean up the kitchen because you know it will bring a smile to your spouse’s face, and the thought of her smiling when she walks into the kitchen in the morning makes every dish you clean into another rose in the vase.
And this is a part of what is going on here in this week’s portion. Because when Moshe blesses the people for the execution of all the details, what he is really valuing is the way in which all the details were done.
Every shirt that gets folded is actually an act of love, then even if your wife is asleep while you are doing laundry, she is there with you all the time. And when the Jewish people succeed in seeing G-d in all the details, then they have mastered the art of bringing G-d into the world, which is the entire point.
The Mishkan was not completed because the work was done; it was completed because the Jewish people succeeded in keeping the passion of the dream, while embracing the power of each and every detail necessary to complete their work.