Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38

Flipping the Switch

And they brought the Mishkan to Moses…(ibid. 39:33)

When all of the various parts of the Mishkan (portable “Temple” in the desert) had been fashioned, they were brought to Moses, who actually stood the walls up and erected them. The commentary of Rashi explains that because of the massive weight of the beams none of the people involved in forming the Mishkan were able to erect it, so they brought the materials to Moses, but he too couldn’t lift up the beams. G-d said to him, “Go through the motions as if you are lifting them, and they will be lifted on their own.” The difficulty with this is that a verse in the next chapter (40:18) says, “And Moses erected the Mishkan.” Moses is credited with actually putting up the Mishkan. How do we understand this verse in light of Rashi’s explanation that Moses was not physically capable of lifting the beams? If Moses couldn’t even lift the beams, why is he credited with constructing the Mishkan. In what sense can the Torah consider that Moses raised the Mishkan when it clearly wasn’t his action?

The answer sheds insights into understanding any creative act of a person. When a couple makes the conscious decision to have a child, they use a system that G-d put into place to bring forth a child. They don’t claim to be knowledgeable enough in biochemistry to synthesize the proteins needed for growth. They don’t allege to have sufficient understanding in physiology to weave the neuron pathways in the brain. And they certainly don’t contend that they are learned enough in pathology to create the immune system that develops within their baby. When we say they made the baby, we mean they used a pre-existing system set up with wisdom and forethought. They pushed the button, and the gears were set in motion. Nine months later, a perfectly-formed, complex marvel called a human being will emerge. They had the baby but didn’t create the baby. This is true of any creative act humans engage in, whether it is a couple having a child, a farmer growing corn, or an entrepreneur creating an industry, we take pre-existing elements that integrate pre-formed systems and turn a switch; then we take the credit for the result. In our mind’s eye, it is our effort that brought forth the product but in reality we did little but use the machinery already in place. It’s like a baker who flips the switch that begins the machine that bakes the bread. Did s/he really make the bread?

When someone harnesses a force of nature, we look with awe and reverence; what a brilliant thinker and unknowingly attribute the wisdom of the system to the one who harnessed it. This is a fallacy. It’s much like Columbus; he discovered America, he didn’t create it. When person taps into a powerful force in G-d’s world, s/he has created nothing. S/He has uncovered some of the intricacies of the systems and machines that G-d uses to run His world. We use physical laws and properties already in place and merely changes gears. The effect may be significant but we created nothing. We discovered a small cog of the elaborate machine that G-d brought forth during the six days of Creation.

We can now answer our question: If Moses could not even lift the beams, why was he personally credited with constructing the Mishkan (portable “Temple” in the desert); in what sense is he considered to have assembled it when it clearly wasn’t his action? The answer is that for Moses any action he engaged in was viewed as merely flipping a switch. It’s G-d’s machine, and He rules it. When Moses went through the motions of lifting the beams of the Mishkan, the action was still attributable to him because in his mind it was no different than a farmer planting wheat or a couple having a child. It’s all miraculous and our role is to go through the motions to the best of our ability. As such, Moses did erect the Mishkan because he used G-d’s ‘machine’ to bring about the result.

The next time we discover, read about or accomplish something, we should realize that the only thing that was discovered was another pre-existing ‘switch’ flipped by the discoverer.

Good Shabbos

(Source: The Shmuz, by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier pp. 157-161)