I used to like the book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff (and it’s all small stuff). Now I don’t anymore, I think it might be too superficial a message; the opposite of today’s parsha which could be subtitled “Thou Shalt Sweat The Small Stuff.” I’ve discovered that on the one hand, its good not to stress over every little details, but on the other hand, it’s really good to prepare and be prepared for every little detail. To have the Torah rolled to the right place. To be sure the kid learns the right maftir. To have enough chairs. As humans, we dream and we plan and we make lists; every list we make, from the guests we invite to a party to what we need to buy for school next semester, is like the list we find in our parsha today: precious to those who carry it around, while incomprehensible to those who find it years later.
Chris Hatfield, in his book An Astronaut’s Guide To Life, writes: “Sweat The Small Stuff.“An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut.” Pay attention to details and anticipate problems.
Yes, its all small stuff: but piece by piece, those small details make a life, and build a character, the same way the mishkan was built piece by piece, with painstakingly accurate specifications.
When our kids are young, we love the details. We love the technicalities and the fine points of even the colour that lands up in their diaper after a meal. Every ooh and ah they say, every bubble they blow, every smile they smile, is a small matter we pay close attention to. And we watch careful lest something goes wrong.
In my opinion, our society is under-obsessed with details, not over. We are so information- saturated that sometimes we lose sight of the trees for the forest. We could use a dose of mishkan-building tactics to get us back on focus.
I want to make an analogy to origami.
The process of origami is about paying attention to details, patience, and exactness. Folding just right. Watching corners and how they need to be. Coordinating measurements. It’s a building project not unlike the building of the mishkan which requires a steady hand and a heart willing to hold the specifics.
And now I want to make an analogy to synagogues, to underscore what Ezri said about building a community.
The Torah portion today gives 87 verses of instructions so that the building of the miskan— which is, as Ezri suggested, a metaphor for the building of a community— can proceed in an efficient and harmonious way. Imagine if God had put together a building committee! There would have been endless, time-consuming arguments, the architect would have quit, and the least-talented member would have been left painting the walls. Having a very focused blueprint helps the building of the mishkan become a cooperative and communal experience with everyone following the same plan.
I think that may be one of the unique strengths of City Shul. We see the building of our community as a mishkan where God and community dwell together. We build carefully, slowly, and with a plan in mind. We do not wish to be merely functional, we wish to be visionary. And to be visionary requires attention to detail, which is sometimes “BORING.”
But what makes a great service great, or a great programme great, or a great project great, or in Ezri’s case, a great dvar Torah great- is attention to details. The Talmud doesn’t say much about what to believe, but it has 63 volumes on the details of what to do. Adam Kirsch writes, “Much of the Talmud...can be understood as a choreography of Jewish life. Just as a dancer must master an intricate series of movements and postures, so the Jew’s daily routine must follow the patterns laid out in the Talmudic tractates: when to pray, what to eat, where and how to move on Shabbat. Usually the follower of a religion is called a “believer,” but the Talmud pays little attention to what Jews believe. What concerns the rabbis is what they do, down to the smallest detail—for instance, which shoe ought to be put on first in the morning.
Yet choreography is not quite the right metaphor here, since the goal of the rabbis is not to produce a graceful or beautiful life, but a holy one. So, Jewish observance can also be likened to a technology—a series of tools that, if used correctly, will produce the desired result... The Talmud, then, would be a manual of sacred technology, showing how to calibrate every prayer, ritual, and action so that it will be most effective. Fundamental to this idea is that the Jewish God is not content with pious thoughts but demands the necessary sequence of actions—just as an airplane won’t fly unless the pilot turns on the engine, even if everyone on board wishes it up into the air.”
I believe one of the greatest strengths of Judaism and one which is still totally relevant in our century, is in its insistence on details—how many cubits high your Sukkah walls should be, or which direction the Chanukah candles are lit in—not so much as a pedantic list of practicalities, but more as a training ground for the rest of our lives in being mindful, in not letting the world pass us by without stopping to notice the small and fantastic details which make up a flower, or a sunset, or a house, or an event, or a person.
There are two things Chazal, the early Talmudic Rabbis, consider microcosms — the mishkan and the human soul. By going through the mishkan in detail, they believed we would have more insight into how our souls should work.
In English slang we use the expression “the devil is in the details” to mean it is the small details of something which make it difficult or challenging. It is meant as a caution. But I’d like to offer the Jewish take: that God is in the details. Even the smallest fold of an origami flower—the one Ezri made me 2 years ago which is still on my desk as a reminder of this concept—or the mention of how many cubits makes up the ark, gives us an opportunity to infuse the mundane with a sense of holiness and purpose. As Evelyn Underhill, a 19th century Catholic thinker, wrote: “It is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the irritating details of outer life.”