Parshat Pekudei: the final parsha in the Book of Shemot, and the last section to talk about the construction of the Tabernacle, and essentially the blueprint for the construction of the Temple.
Now, we have already discussed that the Tabernacle/Temple is really a place in which an individual can create sacred moments in time with God, a way in which we can find multiple portals of entry, to feel a connection with God, a romance with God.
Yet, even in this structure, which speaks about connection to God, there also must be a recognition of a sense of respect and dignity. The Gemara tells us that it used to be that the priests would run up the altar, ascend the ramp of the altar to be engaged in one of the first services in the morning “דישון המזבח” the cleaning off of the Ashes of the Mizbe’ach.
The Talmud tells us that once, as the Kohanim were running up the ramp, one Kohen saw that the other Kohen was going to get to the top first and therefore, he pushed him off the ramp so that he could get there first to perform the mitzvah. [Yoma 22a]
In effect, he was willing to ignore the dignity of the other in order to serve and have a relationship with God.
The Talmud then quotes an even more perplexing story: one Kohen saw another Kohen getting to the top of the Altar and took out a knife and stabbed him in order that he, instead, could ascend the altar and perform the service, again putting service to God over concern for the other. [Yoma 23a]
In fact, the story continues with an even more tragic consequence: the father of the child who had been stabbed, also obviously a Kohen, runs over to his son and sees that his son is still alive, and says to a Kohen: “Quick, quick, quick! Pull the knife out of my son while he’s still alive so the knife does not become ritually impure.”
The perplexing component to these stories is that often in our service to God, we forget derech eretz, respect for another person. And when we forget respect for the other person, even the service of God can be destructive. As the Talmud’s narratives we referenced demonstrate: even the service of God can cause a chasm in our relationship to God.
And so as we conclude the story of the building of the Tabernacle – an edifice that is there to empower us to create a relationship to God – let us remember that with all mitzvot, what is of paramount importance is not just the way we engage in the mitzvah, the zealousness and the service of the mitzvah. Rather, it is the derech eretz, the respect for the other, which must come before the observance of the mitzvah, because that in itself is a prerequisite for us to be able to engage with God.
Sadly, we look all over the Jewish world and we see that this message of treating others with respect has been lost. We look all over the world and we see that this message has been lost.
Please, God, as we conclude this section of Shemot, we will take a pause in order to remind ourselves of the responsibility to engage with God through the performance of mitzvot with the recognition that the first step in the performance of mitzvot is derech eretz, is the way we treat the other.