March 8, 2021 |

An Easier Way to Achieve Redemption

This week a friend gave me a beautiful present: a children’s book by Mordecai Gerstein called, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.”

This book tells the story of Philippe Petit and his daring, death defying, walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974.

Many of you are probably familiar with this story. Some of you might have been in New York City then or read about it afterwards. Others may have seen the Oscar winning film based upon this walk.

Here is a brief recap of the story. Philippe Petit was a street performer in Paris and an expert tightrope walker. Soon after the Twin Towers were built he snuck into the towers as a construction worker and in the middle of the night carried up a 500 pound cable. He shot an arrow between the towers with a rope attached to it. Using that rope he strung the cable which was only 5/8 of an inch thick in between the two buildings.

He walked onto the cable just as New Yorkers were coming to work that morning and spent nearly an hour on the cable where he walked, jumped, and danced before he walked off the cable and was arrested by police officers.

After reading this book, I became fascinated by the story. So I wrote Philippe a letter and I asked him: “What most fascinates me is how it felt for you spiritually? What did it feel like to be alone up on the wire?”

Of course I also wanted to know if Philippe would agree to string a wire between our shul and TI across the street and walk across.

After hearing Philippe’s story, most people wonder why he would do this.

But for this question I felt I had an answer already. Philippe has said that when he was on the wire, as the helicopters buzzed above him, and the police shouted at him on their bullhorns, and the crowds gathered below him, he simply lay down on the wire. And when he did so he said, “I felt totally free. No one could touch me. I was with the birds.”

That moment of freedom is what we search for our entire lives. We live our lives seeking a sensation that we can call freedom or redemption.

Philippe Petit found his freedom up on a wire in the middle of the sky. But that is an approach to achieving redemption that is definitely not recommend for most people.

Our Torah portion this week shows us an easier way to achieve redemption.

At its core Sefer Shemot, which we finished today is about how to achieve redemption. In English we call this book, Exodus, but the great Ramban calls this book, Sefer Geula, or the Book of Redemption.

This book from beginning to end is the blueprint for how to achieve redemption. The book starts with the children of Israel being enslaved in Egypt and ends with the following scene, which is a scene of total redemption (Exodus 40:34, 38): Vayechas he-anan et ohel moed u-khevod Hashem maleh et hamishkan, and the Cloud covered the tent of the meeting and the Glory of God filled the Tabernacle….ki anan Hashem al hamishkan yomam ve-eish tehiyeh laylah bo le-enei kol beit yisrael bekhol maaseihem, for the Cloud of Hashem was above the Tabernacle by day, and fire on it at night, in front of the eyes of all of Israel in all their journeys.”

Just like Sinai, this moment was redemption for all of Israel; they all witnessed the Cloud and the Glory of God.

So how did the benei yisrael achieve this redemption?

In answer to this question there are two points that I want to emphasize as keys to the redemption of the benei yisrael and which are also keys to our own redemption.

Point number one:

At the end of our portion we are told that Hashem told Moshe to erect the Mishkan on the first day of the month of Nissan, beyom hachodesh harishon, be-echad lachodesh takim et mishkan ohel moed.

There is a dispute amongst the rabbis as to how exactly to interpret this command. But the common interpretation is as follows (see Ramban 40:2):

The first day of Nissan, the day Moshe was told to put up the Mishkan, is also known as the 8th day of the miluim, the inauguration of the Temple. This means that when Moshe built the Mishkan on the 8th day of the inauguration or the first day of Nissan, he was basically putting up a grand opening sign saying, “The Mishkan is now open for business.”

Prior to this, for one week, beginning on the 23rd of Adar, Moshe was inaugurating the Mishkan. For that entire seven day period Moshe was building the Mishkan and taking it down by himself every single day. According to one opinion in the Midrash he built it and took it down twice a day. But according to Rabbi Chaninah Hagadol who is also quoted in the Midrash, Moshe built it and took it down three times a day.

So according to Rabbi Chaninah Hagadol, Moshe built and took down the Mishkan 21 times during the week of miluim. All of this was very time consuming and physically difficult. The beams were very heavy, the curtains were very hard. Just think about building your sukkah and how hard that is, and imagine something much, much more difficult to build, and now imagine doing that 3x a time a day for seven days straight. This is what Moshe had to do before the Mishkan could be open for business.

What was the purpose of this? Why the need for him to do this over and over again?

The goal of Moshe was not just to build the Mishkan; it was to build the mishkan in such a way that the Glory of God would dwell within it. Moshe wanted to achieve a great spiritual connection with Hashem.

By building the Mishkan three times a day, Moshe was teaching us a spiritual lesson which is axiomatic to Judaism; i.e. the path to great moments of redemption can only come through repetitive efforts and consistent hard work. Spiritual success requires an enormous commitment and effort.

If Moshe had just put up the Mishkan once on the first day of Nissan it would have been less effective; perhaps he wouldn’t have the proper kavvanah or the proper manner in which to insert the beams. He needed to fine tune and prepare the mishkan for that special moment on the first day of Nissan.

Think about our high wire act person, Philippe Petit. He didn’t show up and walk across the Towers and feel free. He meticulously planned his daring deed for six years. He studied every aspect of the Towers. He built a model of the Towers. He rented helicopters to observe the space. He spoke with physicists. He planned and rehearsed for the moment with the recognition that his life depended on success.

This is the same approach we should take to spirituality. Some people—not ones who come to our shul—say shul doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t move me spiritually. Well, yes if you are going to show up for shul once a year and sit there for 45 minutes, yes, I totally agree that your spiritual experience will be of a limited value. What is required for spiritual success is constant, daily commitment and preparation, just like the commitment that Moshe had in building the Mishkan.

This is what Moshe required from himself and this is what he was trying to teach benei yisrael. And this is what we should require of ourselves. We should challenge ourselves to commit to Hashem in a serious manner on multiple occasions throughout the day. That is the first path to redemption that I wanted to speak about today.

But there is a second path to redemption that is also seen from Parshat Pekudei. And this is a path that intersects with Parshat Shekalim.

Lets go back to the story of Philippe Petit. Although Philippe achieved his moment of freedom and although his story seems harmless and fun, there is an element about what he did that I find disturbing.

There is something narcissistic about Petit’s behavior—and no, it is not just because he hasn’t yet answered my letter.

There are no videos of his walk between the towers. Just still photos. What happened was a person carried the video cameras onto the roof of the building but then he was too tired to video the walk.

Can you imagine if this had been done today? His walk would have easily been videoed and it would have been on youtube instantly. And then it would have gone viral in minutes.

Now on the one hand there is nothing wrong with that. But on the other hand, there is something immodest and anti-spiritual about our entire youtube society today. We have become a youtube culture with individuals constantly promoting themselves by performing outlandish acts and posting it to youtube.

The youtube culture is a culture that promotes the individual. And while it is possible for an individual to achieve redemption, this week’s parshah tells us that there is a better path to redemption. Parshat pekudei teaches us that the path to redemption of the individual comes not through a glorification of the individual but through the individual’s communal participation.

The word pekudei can mean to count. As in, eleh pekudei hamishkan, these are the countings of the mishkan. The Torah ends the Book of Redemption with a meticulous counting of all the gold, silver, and materials used in the mishkan.

This is a seemingly tedious way to end a book of redemption. Wouldn’t we expect a more exciting, Hollywood-like ending? But instead we are seeing a counting of all the silver and gold that was spent. So the answer is that is what the word pekudei can also mean to redeem.

At the beginning of Exodus, Hashem tells Moshe go tell the Jewish people (3:16), “pakod pakadati etchem, I will redeem you.” Here the word pekod means to redeem.

In fact, the Midrash tells us that this phrase “pekod pekadati” was a secret phrase passed down through Serach bat Asher and the tradition was that whatever prophet would come to the Israelites with this secret phrase, “pakod pakadati” would be the true prophet.

That is a strange Midrash. I think it means that whoever understood the meaning of the words pekod pakadati would be able to redeem the people.

And Moshe understood the meaning of these words. He understood that pakod means a redemption that comes through a communal counting of the people.

This is the message of Parshat Shekalim. It states in Parshat Shekalim that everyone must give a half shekel coin in order to be counted, “bifkod otam.” But we can also read it as saying that everyone must give a half shekel in order to be redeemed.

In other words the redemption of the individual comes not through the glorification of the individual but through the participation in the communal building of a meaningful entity.

So when God told Moshe say to the children of Israel, “pakod pakadati etchem— I will redeem you.” He is saying tell them that I will redeem you when you commit to something much larger than each of you.

That is a fundamental message of redemption—the path to an individual’s redemption is through a community.

And it carries with it an additional responsibility for us as a community. Since communal participation is an individual’s path to redemption, we as a religious community must always strive to be as inclusive as possible and thereby help the individual join the community. The individual is best redeemed through the community; but true redemption for the community can only come when the community remembers to make space for the individual.

Right after he was arrested for performing his high-wire act, Petit was asked: “Why did you do it?” And he answered, “There is no why.”

He is right. We should not ask why the soul seeks redemption. Instead, we should ask how we can achieve it.

And we can achieve it. All it takes is a constant commitment to the hard work of spirituality and a dedication to the recognition that our individual redemption will come through a communal redemption. And if we understand those two ideas then the path to redemption is very much achievable.

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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

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Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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