By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
When is “good enough” good enough?
There are a series of commercials that have been getting a great deal of play recently. Presenting several scenarios, the commercials question if “good enough” is an acceptable standard. Would you want “good enough” in a surgeon? A financial advisor? The obvious answer is, no. These ads remind us that, in matters that matter, “good enough” is not good enough. When it really matters, excellence must be the standard.
The question is, what is the difference between that “good enough” and excellence? To answer that question must we rely on ambiguity – I know it when I see it? Is excellence measurable? Is the best doctor always the one with the highest GPA?
The best measure for seeking and achieving excellence is a time-honored one – Attention to detail.
Yet, we live in a cultural moment when attention to detail is not a particularly vaunted quality. In ways large and small, we have grown lazy or even sloppy about detail. We like the “big picture”. We’re “vision” seekers. Give us the loud, the uplifting, the crescendo. Give us the big picture but spare us the nitty-gritty.
We don’t want to know how “the sausage is made” much less engage in the focus required to make it.
We hire others for that.
Imagine sitting in a movie theater, watching a film about the conclusion of Shemot. On the screen before you are a people who, having been redeemed from slavery, had come into the desert to receive the revelation of God’s Commandments. It is a singular moment in the annals of human history and experience. We sit in the theater gripping our hand rests at the drama to come. We expect the singing of angels! The people, free at last, should dance in the shadow of Sinai. There should be lights, lots of lights… Yes, perhaps that would be the movie version, but it is not the way that Shemot closes.
The conclusion of Shemot is seemingly dry. No brilliant score. No angels singing. No lights. Just a somewhat tedious recitation of the details concerning the building of the mikdash.
We want angels. We want dancing. We want lights. And all we get are dry details?
In an understatement, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his commentary on Parshat Mishpatim, “Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai.” He is quick to add that we should not feel let down at all. For, while Parshat Yitro contains the vision, he makes clear that God exists in the details of our lives. Both, of course, are essential – vision and detail. Without vision, our lives grow dull and meaningless. But without details, that vision is rootless and, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Details allow us to make our way through our lives. Details allow us to realize that vision. As Rabbi Sacks acknowledges, the greatness of Judaism is the noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but freedom is meaningless if it is only an “abstract idea”. Specific laws – details – make freedom real for every man.
The professional golfer Lee Trevino, after making a difficult putt to win a championship with a very generous check, was asked if he felt pressure before making the putt. He laughed. “Pressure?” he said, “that’s not pressure. Pressure is betting ten dollars on a hole and only having eight in your pocket.”
Two dollars may not seem like much. It is when you’re two dollars short.
The builder who uses a level and says the sealed bubble is “close enough” is a builder whose house will topple over.
Measure twice. Cut once. Measure again.
Taking care of details means repetition, and repetition is, almost by definition, tedious and sometimes boring. It is not glamorous. It is not exciting. But step by step, detail by detail, is the only way a magnificent vision can be realized.
Ramban teaches that “in general all of this [repetition] reflects the love and esteem [with which the construction of the Mishkan is viewed by Hashem]”. Ramban’s clear point is that the greater the detail and the more attention that is paid to detail, the more we realize the love and devotion to the thing itself. That is, attention to details, exactitude and precision are reflections of devotion and commitment – not to the details but to the greater vision and goal. As such, the repetition of these details by Hashem speaks to the esteem in which He holds the larger vision and goal.
All the above being true, that which is most sacred, that which is most important must be accomplished with the most attention to detail. This is true when it comes to kedusha where, among countless examples of the profound importance of attention to every detail, even a single letter missing from Torah, or the eating less the exact shiur kezais of matzah, or one se’ah missing from the mikvah renders it no longer holy. This is true in everyday life, where an incision made a mere millimeter in the wrong direction, or a mere half-second delay in applying the brakes could result in disaster.
So, it was that when, “Moshe saw the entire work, and behold they had done it as Hashem had commanded, so had they done. And Moshe blessed them.” (Shemot 39:43) Not only is disaster averted when instructions are followed precisely, but blessings are earned.
One should never minimize the challenge of following instructions precisely. Ask any student, ask any person toiling at work, ask any doctor or engineer. Ask a law clerk. Ask the craftsman cutting lumber. The more detailed the task, the more difficult to follow those instructions. Sivan Rahav-Meir summarizes it succinctly, “A job done properly is worthy of a headline and the fact that the Children of Israel completed the task they had been given in the best possible way is worthy of praise. Keeping to a schedule, reaching set goals, and perfectly executing a task is not to be taken for granted.” Add to that Ramban’s understanding that executing a task with attention to detail is the loving and devoted response of the doer – a true reflection of the preciousness with which the task was assigned.
“He considers it with preciousness, and I (we) do it with preciousness.”
Attention to detail is an act of devotion, not obligation.
Perhaps this is what Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was getting at when he explained the repetition of all the details, suggesting that an item designed to serve as a sanctified symbol must be created with specific intent toward its symbolic role. It was through the detailed reiteration of the Mishkan’s construction that the Torah conveys that the making, delivering, assembling and erecting of every feature of the Mishkan and its utensils was done with awareness and conscious intent to fulfill the mitzvah involved. Could there be a more powerful definition of kavanah if not the determination to fulfill every nuance of kedusha exactly as God intended?
God, as the Giver of all Mitzvah, is Perfection. He knows only too well that despite our best intentions we fall short. So, He repeats the task, again and again. In doing so, He is modeling for us the need to pay attention to detail in every other aspect of life where we desire to infuse sanctity and kedusha – our homes, our loving marriages, our parenting. In these areas, and so many more, we pay attention to detail, so our lives can reflect the Mishkan.
We are forever like that audience in the movie theater. We long for the grand. We long for the epic. But we must live for the detail. We must live in the detail. This is the lesson of our lives. This is the lesson we learn from the narrative of Shemot.
We see the narrative arc of an enslaved people transformed into a free nation. From the early parashiyot of Shemot through Bo and Beshalach, the people prepare for the exodus and final escape from their long years of slavery to Yitro and Mishpatim we witness something even more powerful than their longing for freedom occur; the physical freedom that has been the focus of the parashiyot is transformed into a longing for spiritual independence.
Here is our grandeur! Here is our epic! And yet, this longing for spiritual independence communicated not in the usual trappings of grandeur but through a single, concrete act – the building of a mikdash, a space where God’s spirit will reside permanently among the people. Rather than an exercise in glory, the building of the mikdash is an exercise in detail and micromanagement.
“And let every wise man among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded, the Tabernacle, its tent…”
The emphasis upon detail is powerful. The Torah informs us eighteen times that the Israelites followed the instructions they were given, “just as God commanded Moses.” Eighteen times! With this repetition God does not hector the people. Rather, He communicates His love for them. This people who had been redeemed from slavery only to fall short at the base of Sinai and make the Golden Calf found comfort, found focus, found meaning in the details God presented to them.
We all teeter between golden calves and the divine. When we settle for “good enough” the balance falls toward our lesser selves. When our attention is on details, on lovingly approaching what is grand and meaningful in our lives, we tip the balance toward excellence and the divine.
Rabbi Safran’s recently published volume on parshiyos haTorah available on Amazon: Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah: Rabbi Eliyahu Safran: 9781602803152: Amazon.com: Books