Friday, March 8, 2019

Parashat Pekudei: Balanced Thought

Balanced Thought
Thoughts on Pekudei 2019
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And Moshe saw all the tasks, and, look, they had done it as God had charged, thus they had done it, and Moshe blessed them. (Shemot 39:43)

The Torah described the men who built the Mishkan as “hakhmei lev – wise of heart.” Nessiv suggested that “hearts” in this context refers to their unique passion and choice in this endeavor. Lacking the basic skills and training for craftsmanship of the Mishkan and its furnishings, the volunteers were guided by inspiration instead of education.[1] Moshe was thus filled with awe as he peered upon the final product, “And, look, they had done it as God had charged.” He was surprised by their ability to construct the Mishkan with minimal training and only partial instruction.[2] Indeed, the Hakhamim imagined Moshe’s exclamation at that time: “Bessalel, you must have been in the shadow of God (be-sel-el), for absolutely so did God command me!”[3]

Mention of Bessalel, “in the shadow of God,” is reminiscent of Man’s initial creation. It was God’s expression of “Let us make man in our image (be-salmenu)” that represents the divine inspiration for humanity. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg commented on the similarity between “image – selem” and “shadow – sel,” suggesting that it represents “a subtle, self-effacing sensibility that can pick up on hints, on intimations that are almost nonexistent.”[4] Construction of the Mishkan, then, represented the fulfilment of our destiny – ambitiously following “God’s word” by means of our personal intuition and creativity.

It is somewhat surprising, however, that the fulfillment of “God’s word” at the Mishkan would be coupled with human intuition. Following the Torah repeated statements that the Mishkan be built “as God commanded Moshe,” it stands to reason that the process would happen by means of a pristine “mirror of God,” instead of His darkened “shadow.” Why did human perception play such a vital role in the construction of the “dwelling place of God”?

Albert Einstein once remarked that “the greatest scientists are artists as well.” He reflected on his own accomplishments, remarking:
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge. . . . All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration. . . . At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.[5]
Best-selling author Daniel Levitin mentioned, in this context, an initiative of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), several years ago. In 2012, NCI sponsored a groundbreaking brainstorming session with artists, scientists and other creative people. Acknowledging that the cure for cancer remained a dream even after decades of intense research, NCI handpicked people with no knowledge or expertise in cancer research and paired them with the leading cancer researchers in the world. Several of the “out of the box” ideas which were generated by the nonexperts were subsequently deemed brilliant, providing avenues for future thought and research. Levitin likened this initiative to Einstein’s self-reflection that our thoughts are best formulated when rational and linear thinking is tethered to nonlinear creativity.[6]

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that determining how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is “one of the greatest challenges of our time.”[7] Indeed, each of us struggles on a consistent basis to balance our “raw thoughts” with ruminative deliberations. While we fear “rash decisions,” we don’t want to “overthink” our choices either. God’s deliberate plan for the Mishkan’s construction – “by His word,” yet by the “wise of heart” and in “the shadow of God” – remains for us a blueprint of life “be-selem Elokim.” It reminds us of the necessary value of balance in our thought.

[1] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, Commentary of Ha’amek Davar to Shemot 36:2 s.v. asher.
[2] Ha’amek Davar to Shemot 39:43 s.v. va-yar.
[3] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 38:22 s.v. u-Bessalel.
[4] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York, NY, 2001), pg. 477.
[5] The Expanded Quotable Einstein (Princeton, NJ, 2000), pg. 245.
[6] Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 380.
[7] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY, 2007), pg. 269.