Thursday, June 5, 2008

Table Talk for Naso 5768 - Mesirat Nefesh

We normally interpret the term mesirat nefesh, literally meaning “giving of life-force” to refer to someone willing to make significant sacrifice for the sake of God, Judaism or the Jewish people. This sacrifice can refer to great economic sacrifice, or even putting oneself in physical danger for the sake of a powerful cause.

But we that Rashi utilizes this term in our parshah in an entirely different context that might surprise us. Describing the consecration of the mishkan we find at the end of the parshah, the Torah begins the section by telling us, וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן – “and it was on the day that Moshe completed the erection of the mishkan..” (7:1) Rashi and others immediately wonder: did Moshe alone build the mishkan? After all, Betzalel, Oholiav and numerous craftsmen, artisans and other workers invested their time, effort and energy to construct God’s home in the desert. Why then does the Torah specifically attribute the construction of the mishkan to Moshe?

Rashi explains: לפי שמסר נפשו עליו – because he “gave of his life” for the sake of the mishkan. In contemporary American term we would say that he was “moser nefesh.” In what way did Moshe sacrifice? Rashi elaborates: “to ensure the form of each and every item the way that God had shown him, to instruct the craftsmen, and he did not err in even one creation.” In essence, Rashi defines Moshe’s mesirat nefesh as an incredible attention to detail; an insistence on perfection in the construction of the mishkan and a tireless devotion to that cause.

At first glance, Rashi’s explanation does not corresponding to our normal definition of mesirat nefesh. Does attention to detail and meticulousness necessarily imply self-sacrifice? Or must we redefine mesirat nefesh in a new and different way?