Giving Expression to the Mission

Parashas Tetzaveh picks up where ParashasTerumah left off, describing the vestments of the Kohen Gadol that were to be worn as he performed the avodah in the Mishkan. However, while descriptions of the varied garments occupy the bulk of this week’s parashah, it is the apparent digressions of the first and final aliyos that offer powerful insights into the Mishkan’s true purpose.

The parashah opens with a commandment to press pure olive oil for use in the Menorah. It concludes with a description of the Mizbei’ach Haketores, the Altar on which the incense was to be burned. Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, questions their placement within the parashah, suggesting that they should instead be recorded in Sefer Vayikra, together with the korbanos and other core components of the avodah.

Harav Hirsch explains that their location is most fitting because these two service items give expression to the Mishkan’s structure and contents. The oil represents Torah and enlightenment of the spirit, the perfection of thoughts and deeds that are the ultimate goal of avodah. Ketores symbolize a balanced blend of fragrant ingredients, which results in a deep sense of favor and contentment. “All of the offerings are made for some purpose or another, except for the ketores, which came for only one purpose — happiness” (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh, 15).

In a sense, these two items reflected the core mission of the Mishkan. The beautiful structure, the exquisite vessels and elaborate garments, all were formed and fashioned for the purpose of facilitating a closer, deeper bond between Hashem and His people. “And you shall build for Me a Mikdash and I will dwell in them” (Shemos 25:8). The oil’s pure light and the sweet fragrance of the ketores gave the Mishkan expression in direct terms, reflecting spiritual yearning and joy at its core, in actionable terms that were conveyed daily.

In a sense, the oil and incense focused us on the Mishkan’s “mission statement.” The goal was to create an abode, as it were, for Hashem to dwell amongst His people. But it was also to serve as a source of inspiration, a continued reminder of the lofty goals that we must set and actions that we are to engage in if we are to deserve such proximity and intimacy.

Establishing a mission is a crucial component of any enterprise. Too often, we get lost in the details or become overly enamored with building beautiful structures in real or figurative terms. We pay close attention to attire and accessories, so to speak, but forget what it is that we were really after when we got started. Having a mission can give an organization direction and help it maintain focus.

This is true on the personal level as well. Missions direct us to help others, to be responsive to their wishes and needs. They also focus us on living a fulfilling life for ourselves, and having the capacity to reflect on what drives us personally, as Jews, professionals, spouses, parents, siblings, children, community members and human beings.

The Torah abounds with examples of personal mission. Mission defined how Avraham and Sarah viewed hospitality, the way Yosef cared for a famine-stricken world, and Aharon’s approach to peace and harmony.

Moshe’s approach to leadership was also defined by mission. Perhaps the greatest example of that occurred towards the end of his life. Knowing that he will not lead the nation into the Promised Land, Moshe beseeched Hashem to appoint a successor who would understand how to lead and manage a complex nation.

Moshe spoke to the L-rd, saying: “Let the L-rd, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the L-rd will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Bamidbar 27:15–17)

With these words, Moshe expressed the mission that drove him throughout decades of servant leadership. His mission was to serve, to go before his people, to lead and follow, to be the ultimate shepherd.

To use a more contemporary example, l’havdil, we recently commemorated the fifth anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” We recall with great fondness the heroic actions of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his crew on the chilly morning of January 15, 2009.

Reflecting back, we were all impressed by the captain’s heroic composure and demeanor. We were struck by the deep concern he expressed over the health and wellbeing of the passengers and flight crew, a concern that propelled him to search the entire airplane cabin twice after its evacuation to ensure that no one remained on board. He did so despite the fact that the rear of the plane was rapidly filling with water.

Each act alone would have been sufficient to garner our collective respect and admiration. But there was something else about the pilot that I had found to be quite impressive. In the aftermath of the ordeal, Sullenberger signed a lucrative book deal. Based on his relatively advanced age (58), newfound wealth and fame, not to mention the jarring trauma associated with his emergency landing, I had expected Sullenberger to retire from active flying. After all, he accomplished everything that there is to achieve in aviation. He was slated for a comfortable retirement, with numerous engagements on the speakers’ circuit awaiting.

However, he returned to his post later that year, choosing company service over self-service. Clearly, in Sully’s world, there was more to flying than simply an opportunity to generate an income for his family. To him, flying is a means of serving others, of being part of something that is larger than himself. In his mind, he was simply doing his job that morning, nothing more. For him to give up his passion because of one moment of glory would undermine everything that he had worked towards up to that moment.

Knowing what it is that you’re after and being able to define it in clear, actionable terms takes much thought and consideration. Creating a mission statement is not easy. It requires identifying your core essence, to the exclusion of many things that may be relevant but not central. But such efforts are most worthwhile, offering a guiding light and sense of contentment that is so often lacking in our lives.


Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach, writer and teacher living in Passaic, NJ. He can be contacted at 

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