Shabbat Pekudey, Adar II Begins: Don’t Burn the Day

These days, being happy is not easy. Reasons to be sad, to be worried, or to be outraged are easy to find – and late winter’s gloomy chill doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. Even as I have heard some say that Tisha B’Av is impossible in Portland Oregon because the weather is so beautiful, Purim’s declaration that we must be happy seems similarly out of step with our real lives. This year, with an extra leap month of Adar (added 7 times in the 19 year cycle of the Jewish calendar) we are fortunate to have twice the days to find our happy place; and find it we must, our tradition insists.
Consider that the Jewish people has been practicing the mitzvah of mi sheh-nikhnas Adar marbim simkha, “when Adar enters, happiness increases” for many generations. It’s fascinating and curious that in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that, when all other holy days have faded into the past, Purim will still be celebrated. On the simple human level, each of us yearns to be happy, each of us needs opportunities for a smile, a laugh, a moment of delight.
Our parashat hashavua, (Torah reading for the week) is called Pekudey, meaning “records,” from the word for taking account of people, or things. It might be translated along the same lines as “noticing.” In it we are offered a way to learn what it might mean to fulfill the mitzvah of being happy while at the same time not turning away from the reality of one’s life.
This parashah describes in great detail an amazing and joyful event. The mishkan, built with love and freewill offerings by the Israelite community, is completed, and it glows with the Presence of the holy. Every Israelite “whose heart so moved” brought their heart’s offering. All were needed; all were welcomed. They were still escaped and homeless slaves, but they found happiness in together building their sacred space.
It’s important to notice that each offering was different, and all were necessary, just as we are all different, and to the extent that we seek to bring our heart’s gifts to our common space, we are building a space of joy and uplift. If you are not happy in the work, it’s a pretty good sign that you are in the wrong place.
The command to “Be Happy, It’s Adar” is really a way to remind each one of us every year to notice how we are doing. Are you capable of moments of delight? How’s your happiness quotient? You are given the gift of life; there is no rehearsal and no do-over as far as we know. The Jewish tradition of optimism and belief in the perfectibility of this world, the insistence that we are not allowed to despair, requires us to do the best we can in this life to be happy – or at least to do the best we can not to be unhappy for one moment longer than necessary.
Most days, we don’t do this by conquering the world or overthrowing the system. Most days, we do this by noticing a flower, a bird, a kindness. In 1998 the Dave Matthews band released a song in which he sang
We need the light of love in here
Don’t beat your head
Dry your eyes
Let the love in there
There’s bad times
But that’s OK
Just look for love in it
And don’t burn the day away ((full lyrics here)
Don’t burn the day. It could be your happiest one. Notice it, notice every gift and every opportunity for gratitude, and for the love you are able to give and receive. This, it seems to me, is a way to understand the urgency of Purim, and its eternal significance. May it touch you despite all that challenges us when we simply try to feel the wholeness that is our original and our natural state.

Shabbat Pekudey: Get Over Yourself and Go Learn

Our parashat hashavua this week, Pekudey, could be known as “the Accountants’ Parashah”. Pekudey means “records”, and our text begins with 

אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל-פִּי מֹשֶׁה:  עֲבֹדַת, הַלְוִיִּם, בְּיַד אִיתָמָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן

These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, as they were rendered under Moses’s supervision: the work done by the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Ex.38.21)

Why is this report of expenses and materials used included in the Torah? According to midrashic interpretation, it was to prove to suspicious Israelites that neither Moshe nor anyone else involved in the work had stolen anything.

Moshe heard people speaking about him: “Look at all the things he has. He eats from the Jews’ property, drinks from the Jews’ property, and all that he has is from the Jews.” Another one said: “Would you think that the one who is in charge of all the work of the Mishkan would not be rich?” 

The midrash concludes that Moshe decided that when he finished the Mishkan, he would do an exact accounting of everything that was collected and used. (TanhumaPekudei 4)

This is a sad, but highly believable, explanation, and it is certainly not limited to the Generation of the Wilderness, as they are called. Although Moshe has done nothing to merit suspicion, the jealousy of those who feel inadequate is turned upon him. The jealousy, and the anger it creates, is not expressed openly and truthfully, but rather comes cloaked in perfectly “normal” comments. But underneath it everyone can tell that the real problem is with the accuser.

Moshe is called trustworthy by G-d, no less. In our own terms, he has done nothing to provoke the attack, and actually is demonstrably innocent. We are left with the question of why he was accused.

The Israelites were on the cusp of a great new thing: the Mishkan was nearly completed, and the path to which they had committed was to become a reality. Were they having second thoughts, these suspicious fault-finders? Was this their way to express a personal sense of fear or vulnerability? Perhaps – and their inability to see themselves and their true feelings led them toward an even worse place: vulnerable turns to suspicious, and then to anger – and then to evil.

“Blessing is only possible in things hidden from sight.” (Talmud, Taanit 8b). The Sochotchover Rebbe (Poland, 1838-1910) noted that a blessing has an inner, quiet strength of holiness; that which is done in awareness of observers is more often vulnerable to evil. Yet we live in community! And so from time to time, those who do good quietly are going to be unjustly accused in public of wrong doing by those who are jealous, or frightened. 

In community we of course have the right and the responsibility to keep honest records. But we do not have the right to pretend to ask for an accounting when it is only a cloak for a truth that is more difficult.

The mystics bid us pay attention to the fact that when our I is foremost in our vision, we can’t see anything but ourselves. Move your “I think, I feel, I need” out of the center of your vision, and see what vistas are revealed.

The next time you are moved to suspicion, remember the Jewish ethic of judging l’khaf zekhut, “giving the benefit of the doubt”. It does not matter who it is or what you suspect: you must work on yourself here. Before you formulate an accusation even in your heart, do the ethical exercise of considering the many ways in which the person you suspect may actually be innocent. Then look at yourself and ask – why you are angry, really?

And then remind yourself of the Jewish way out of anger and toward peace and wholeness – go and study Torah.