Changing the Blueprint
In his commentary on Exodus 40:21, the Baal HaTurim points out that the Torah emphasizes that every aspect of the construction and assembly of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was done precisely as God commanded Moshe. In fact, the phrase "as God commanded Moshe" is used 18 times in Parshas Pekudei. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, the Baal HaTurim explains that this number alludes to the 18 blessings recited thrice-daily in the prayers known as Shemoneh Esrei.
I once heard a beautiful and profound insight into the comment of the Baal HaTurim. God told Moshe (Ex. 31:1-5) that Betzalel should be in charge of building the Mishkan and its vessels, for He had imbued him with Divine wisdom and with expert craftsmanship skills. We are accustomed to viewing artists as free-thinking and creative spirits, valuing self-expression over adherence to strict guidelines.
As many of the specifications for the Mishkan weren't absolute and even numerous deviations wouldn't invalidate it, one might have expected Betzalel, with his "artistic spirit," to improvise and attempt to "improve" upon God's blueprint. Therefore, the Torah stresses that he followed each and every instruction down to the smallest detail.
Similarly, many people today complain that they feel constrained by the standard text of our daily prayers, which was established almost 2,000 years ago. They feel that as our daily needs change, so too should our expression of them. However, based on the Baal HaTurim's comparison of the daily prayers to the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels, we may suggest that on a deeper level, he is hinting to us that we need not feel stifled by the repeated expression of our needs and entreaties using identical phrases, as illustrated by the following story.
A close disciple of Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky once mentioned that an acquaintance of his had recently undergone a difficult kidney transplant. Rabbi Abramsky sighed, feeling the other Jew's pain, and then remarked, "I pray every day that I shouldn't be forced to undergo such a procedure." The surprised student questioned why he made a special point of reciting this unique prayer daily. Rabbi Abramsky responded that this request is included in the standard wording of Grace After Meals, in which we request that we not come to need -"gifts of flesh and blood" (e.g. transplants).
The student challenged this explanation, as the simple understanding of the words is that we shouldn't need monetary gifts from other humans ("flesh and blood"). Rabbi Abramsky smiled and explained that the Sages incorporated every need we may have into the text of the standard prayers. Any place we find in which we are able to "read in" a special request we have into the words is also included in the original intention of that prayer.
Just as Betzalel followed God's precise guidelines for the creation of the Mishkan and still found room for creative expression by doing so with his own unique intentions and insights, so too our Sages established the standard wording of the prayers with Divine Inspiration, articulating within them every feeling we may wish to express.
Many times, in the midst of a difficult situation, we begin the standard prayers with a heavy heart, only to find a new interpretation of the words which we have recited thousands of times jump out at us. This newfound understanding, which has been there all along waiting for us to discover it in our time of need, is perfectly fit to the sentiments we wish to convey, if we will only open our eyes to see it and use our Sages' foresight to express ourselves.
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THE GIANT CURTAIN
The Mishnah (Shekalim 8:5) teaches that the Paroches (curtain in the Tabernacle - see Exodus 40:21) was 40 cubits long and 20 cubits wide (a cubit is approx. 18 inches). It required 82,000 women to weave it and 300 Kohanim to immerse it in the mikvah if it became ritually impure. Why did it require so many Kohanim to submerge it in the mikvah?
The Vilna Gaon calculates that if it was 40 cubits by 20 cubits, its total perimeter was 120 cubits. The Mishnah in Keilim (17:10) teaches that the cubit which was used to measure items in the Temple was five hands-breadths long, which means that 120 cubits was 600 hands-breadths. As every Kohen would want to take part in the mitzvah of immersing the Paroches to purify it, it is reasonable to assume that the entire perimeter was covered by the hands of the Kohanim. As each Kohen had two hands, the 600 hands-breadths of the perimeter required precisely 300 Kohanim to carry it and immerse it.
As brilliant as the Vilna Gaon's calculation is, the Tiferes Yisroel notes that it seems to be completely unnecessary. The Talmud (Chullin 90b) teaches that there are three numbers mentioned throughout the Talmud which are exaggerations, and names this Mishnah as one of the three. Although there are those who answer that the exaggeration in the Mishnah is the number of women needed to weave the Paroches (82,000), this explanation is difficult in light of the fact that the other two exaggerations mentioned by the Talmud both involve the number 300.
Some suggest that while the Vilna Gaon's calculation is valid, the exaggeration lies in the fact that there weren't always 300 Kohanim involved in the immersion of the Paroches. However, the Ein Yaakov suggests that the Gaon's line of reasoning is correct, yet it still represents an exaggeration. According to his calculation, the corners of the Paroches would be covered by two hands, one from each Kohen at the end of each of the sides which meet at the corner. These four extra and unneeded hands translate into two additional people, which means that only 298 were needed to immerse it and 300 is clearly an exaggeration.
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RETURNING THE COLLATERAL
Rashi explains that the repetition of the word Mishkan in the beginning of Parshas Pekudei (Exodus 38:21) alludes to the fact that the Temple was taken from us by God as collateral (mashkon) for our mistakes. However, regarding a human creditor, the law is (Exodus 22:25) that if he takes an object from the borrower, such as an item of clothing, to secure the payment of the loan, he is required to return it before sunset so that the borrower may use it.
If so, why have we remained in exile without the Holy Temple for almost 2,000 years? Why hasn't God honored the legal requirement to return our collateral to us the same way that we are required to do so for others?
Rabbi Zalmeleh Volozhiner answers these questions with a powerful lesson. The Torah explains that the reason the lender must return the item is because it is critical to the debtor. As he has no replacement for this garment, he will be left with nothing in which to sleep at night. He will cry out in his pain to God, Who will listen in His infinite compassion.
If so, we must conclude that the reason we remain bereft of the Temple after so many years can only be that we don't assign it the same significance that the borrow does to his clothing. We don't feel lost and hopeless without it, having found other acceptable substitutes throughout the generations. Because we don't truly cry out for the return of our collateral, God has yet to return it to us. Rav Zalmeleh adds, however, that any individual who is genuinely pained at the absence of the Temple and emotionally implores God to give it back will merit a Heavenly gift of the identical blessing and Divine presence that he would receive if the Temple was actually extant.
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In the special portion which is read as Parshas Shekalim, Rashi writes (Exodus 30:12) that a census must be conducted by counting the half-shekels which were contributed by each person because it is forbidden to make a head count. The Talmud (Yoma 22b) explains that when it was necessary to count Kohanim in the Temple, the person in charge would count their fingers instead of their heads. As their fingers and heads are all part of the same body, why is counting one forbidden and counting the other permitted?
The Chasam Sofer explains that the Torah forbids counting Jews in order to know their exact number. When a person counts their heads, there is virtually no chance that he will make an error and when he is finished he will know with certainty the exact number of Jews, and it is therefore forbidden to do so. However, when counting their fingers, it is easy for the person counting to accidentally miss a finger or count two fingers on a person's hand, and because this form of counting is imprecise, it is permissible.
The Ben Ish Chai maintains that when a person is counting fingers, he is solely focused on the fingers and not on the people to whom they are attached. Even though at the end of his count he can easily convert the number of fingers into the number of people, there is no prohibition against knowing the number of Jews, only against an act of counting them, which counting fingers is not considered.
The M'rafsin Igri suggests that a finger is not considered an integral part of a person, as one can live even if the finger becomes detached, and therefore counting fingers is not considered an act of counting people.