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The Details Matter-4-2016

Wed, 03/30/2016 - 12:00am -- Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

The Details Matter

Politics has a language all its own.  I know this first hand.  Many years ago I worked on legislative campaigns in Washington State.  When I first began campaign work I had to learn the lingo.  We would plan to “doorbell” certain “high yield” precincts.  Occasionally I would be dispatched to do “opposition research” (“digging dirt”) on our opponents.  Campaign staff would strategize to see what kind of “ink” we could get our candidates.  

“Getting ink” meant getting our candidates in the newspapers, preferably “above the fold,” the most visible part of the paper.   Some of the more seasoned campaign workers told me it didn’t matter what kind of publicity our candidates received, as long as voters saw their names.  (I didn’t use to believe that, but now I’m not so sure.)

In the Torah there is one topic that “gets a lot of ink.”   It’s been estimated that nearly 50 chapters of the Torah are devoted to the topic of the design, construction, location, portability and operations of the mishkan in the wilderness.  The mishkan (also called the “Tabernacle,” a fancy name for “tent”) is the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites in the story of their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. 

According to the biblical narrative, for our ancestors, the mishkan was the place to bring offerings, to join together in public worship. To our ancestors it was a “visible sign of God’s presence in their midst.”[1]    

Still, fifty chapters is a lot of ink.  Compare that to the ink given to the two stories about the creation of the entire world.  Those stories comprise just two chapters!   Why would the Torah devote so much ink to the details of the mishkan?

One answer is that the mishkan is a human institution, like all religious, social, and political endeavors.   And in human institutions, the details matter.   One misplaced letter changes the meaning of a word.  One ill-chosen word changes the meaning of a sentence.   One missing word renders a Torah scroll unfit for use.   

This April, New Yorkers will vote in the presidential primary.  Government is another human institution whose success hinges on the details.  Artful rhetoric and sweeping promises may win elections, but they do not guarantee real results.   Good government is in the details.

The election falls just days before the beginning of Passover.  Many of us will prepare for Passover by cleaning our cupboards and cooking for the seder.   Voting in the primary is another way to prepare for the festival of our freedom – voting is, after all, an expression of our liberty.    This year I encourage you to prepare to vote by reading the policy statements of each candidate.  Are their policies as substantive as their words?  Do they delve into the details?   Do they talk about what matters?

I wish you all a sweet and meaningful Passover.



[1] Mishkan T’filah, p. 6

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