Rabbi David Walk
Well, it's just a job. Those are probably the saddest words a person can utter. I know that we have to put food on the table, but it's truly glorious when a person's livelihood meshes with their highest aspirations. I am such a blessed person. Sharing Torah ideas with others is my job, my calling, my joy, my life. This idea has been expressed by much more eloquent people than I throughout the ages. Confucius famously said, 'Choose a job you love, and you'll never work a day in your life,' and Aristotle said, 'Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.' Then again, "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up,' was said by Muhammad Ali. I'm not exactly sure what we can learn from that statement, but I really like that quote. Since, sadly, not everyone can find this kind of fulfillment in their profession, how do people find meaning in their lives? I believe that this week's Torah reading provides an insight into this vital concept. And this revelation sneaks up on us in an unexpected way.
The name of this parsha, pekudei, is not so easy to translate. It has been variously translated as reckonings, records, accountings, amounts, inventory, number, sum, and summary. The term is used to describe all the material which was brought before Moshe for the building of the Mishkan and the things that go into it. The basis for these translations, I believe, is the use of this expression in the census of the Jews, in both Exodus (30:12, the root appears 3 times in that one verse) and Numbers (1:3). This word is so important to the ideas of that volume of our Bible that the rabbis gave it the alternate name of Sefer HaPikudim, which may give us the name Numbers used throughout the English speaking world. Needless to say, I'm disappointed with all these translations.
I think that the place to find this term's real meaning is hidden in our prayer book. I say 'hidden' because of the way we pray. Sadly, we rattle off the words, scarcely a thought to their meaning. But that's a rant for another article. In Psalm 19 (which is the first of the Psalms added on Shabbat and Yom Tov mornings, as good a place as any to hide an idea), there is a list of terms which describe God's gifts to humankind, The law (torat Hashem, or 'revelation') of the Lord is flawless, restoring and refreshing the soul; The statutes (eidut Hashem, or 'signposts') of the Lord are reliable and trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts (pikudei Hashem, or 'life maps') of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart; The commandment (mitzvat Hashem, or 'directions') of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes (Psalm 19:8-9). So, pikudim are listed with Torah ideas, laws and mitzvoth. Therefore, its real meaning must be akin to those ideas, rather than just another Hebrew word for 'number'.
We see this word used in Genesis in a couple of ways which may shed some light on its real meaning. When our matriarch Sarah finally gets pregnant the term used to describe this miraculous event (I mean she was 90!) is vayifkod. That's usually translated as 'remembered', and is, therefore, similar to vayizkor. These expressions are usually explained as describing God fulfilling a previously made promise. This figures into our Rosh Hashanah services, because it is a major term in the Mussaf service in the section called Remembrances, and it is the first word in the Torah reading for the first day. Later in Genesis, Yosef says to his brothers, 'I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Genesis 50:24).' The words for 'surely remember'? You guessed it, pakod yifkod. The same terminology is used by Moshe when he tells the Jewish leadership that the time for the redemption is at hand.
So, clearly, the root pakod means God's going to do something amazingly wonderful for you. Not so fast! The same term is used for the inevitability of punishment (not so amazingly wonderful), as in poked avon avot, I will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons (Exodus 20:5), from the Ten Commandments. In other words the term pakod can be either positive or negative. So what does the word mean? How should we translate it? I would suggest for your consideration: assignment. The term seems to imply that that God is assigning the perfect role to a person. Perhaps we can use this expression for inanimate objects as well. Lets' go back to our parsha. When we begin our Torah reading by saying these are pikudei hamishkan, we mean these are the assignments for all these donations. Everything which was given to the holy site was used perfectly correctly and appropriately.
In Modern Hebrew, we call a person with an assigned role a pakid (often rendered 'clerk'), and a purpose is a tafkid. In the IDF an order isn't called a ztivui (command), it's called a pikud (an assignment). I like that. However, I didn't like every pikud I got when I was actually serving, but the idea is cool. Now we can also understand the way the words are used in the census. We designate the number of the Jews in a terminology which implies everyone has a role and purpose. Everyone is indispensable.
This is what our parsha must teach us. Every person has a unique and irreplaceable role to play in the destiny of humankind. The Mishkan couldn't be built unless we put every part into its proper place. So, too, each one of us has such a role. That's the given which must motivate each one of us to search high and low until we find our unique role. If you find it in your job, great. Otherwise, keep looking. It's out there, because there's only one you.