Having It All
This week’s parsha on Vayakel-Pekudei was written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit, Vice President of the American Jewish University, Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and Professor of Philosophy.
We live in an age of great material abundance. It isn't unusual for families to own several automobiles, for their homes to display telephones and televisions in more than one room, even to have several computers at home. We own multiple refrigerators and freezers, lavish amounts of clothing, and recreate in private facilities that offer state-of-the-art amusement.
With all the luxuries that Americans enjoy, it is surely anomalous that so many of us are bored and lonely. You would think that all our possessions and distractions would keep us buzzing contentedly from one diversion to the next, always fascinated by what we are doing, always anticipating our next bauble with joy. Yet that isn't the case.
The testimony we offer to our pollsters and social scientists is a nation so awash in fun things that we lack a sense of overriding purpose in our lives. We are bored not because there is nothing to do, but because there is too much to do and most of it has so little significance.
We're not the first generation to face that issue. Wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the Israelites also grumbled and complained because they had nothing to keep themselves busy, nothing that would fill their time with purpose and direct their energy toward attaining a worthy goal. After all, God provided everything—their food literally fell from the heavens, their clothing never wore out, their shoes never needed mending, their leadership resolved all their disputes and contentions. So there was absolutely nothing that needed their attention.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wisely noted that an apt definition of human happiness was being needed.
Our ancestors in the wilderness weren't needed to do anything, and that made them miserable indeed. In fact, Midrash Pesikta Rabbati notes that "Israel always used to grumble, as it is written: "And the people murmured against Moses and against Aaron." And so too again, "And the whole congregation of Israel murmured."
Because their complaints were non-stop, because God noticed that meeting all their material and security needs left them with no significant way to use their time, God devised an activity for the Israelites that would fill their lives with purpose and meaning. God instructed them to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. As the Midrash observes: "It was because of their murmuring that the Holy Blessing One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan."
In fact, the last several chapters of the Book of Sh'mot (Exodus) deal with the instructions and implementation of building the Mishkan. And, not coincidentally, there are no complaints, no rebellions, no strife recorded during any one of those chapters of the Torah. As the Midrash points out, "You find that the whole time they were occupied with the work of the Mishkan, they did not grumble."
What a momentous observation! Once the Israelites were needed, once their lives were made significant by a consequential project, their kvetches and complaints evaporated! The Israelites had complained, in reality, because they felt superfluous and insignificant. It appeared as though God and Moses didn't need them, as if they were extraneous spectators of a private affair.
Work on the Mishkan gave them a way of meeting a divine need, of serving their God and their community at the same time.
We all face the same challenge our ancestors confronted: How to lend significance to our time here on earth, how to make a positive difference for our loved ones, our community, our heritage and all humanity. God saw that human beings need to be needed, that we rise to the expectations others place on us and we grow into the image others hold out as ideal.
The task of wresting meaning out of existence, of fashioning purpose out of mere being, is the great challenge of being human, and the great gift of Judaism.
By holding out to us the opportunity to perform mitzvot at every turn, upon waking, at every meal, in every encounter with another human being, in repeated moments of prayer and contemplation, we erect a Mishkan of deeds, a structure of purpose and holiness that can launch our souls on a flight of discovery and of fulfillment.
Each time a Jew does a mitzvah, the deed helps to refashion that Jew a little better, a little more complete than she was before. Every time we stand before God in prayer, or we visit the sick, or eat a kosher meal, or refrain from waste, or any number of mitzvot Judaism summons us to observe, we contribute to a structure that has infused countless lives with direction, belonging, and transcendence throughout the ages.
The material riches around us may occasionally blind us to our true wealth. But by living lives rich in mitzvot, abounding in holiness, we can escape the urge to complain that simply masks the loneliness of being unnecessary.
The task is great, and the Holy One is waiting. Every Jew is needed.