The tabernacle checklist
Weekly Jewish Wisdom
The Tabernacle Checklist
by Dr. Erica Brown
"Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work."
How do you make sure that in complex operations every step is done correctly? Imagine building a skyscraper according to code or feeding hundreds of guests one night in a restaurant where every restaurant-goer has something different but wants it served at the same time per table. Maybe you're a pilot who just had a flock of geese fly into your engine and you have to land a plane with hundreds of travelers. The thought of any of these complicated procedures makes me thank God I'm only a teacher. I just have to make sure I have enough photocopies for the whole class!
This past week, these scenarios and others were created for me in Atul Gawande's fascinating book, The Checklist Manifesto. Gawande is a gifted writer whose work appears frequently in The New Yorker. He also happens to be a general surgeon. He offers his own complex procedures on the operating table and how easy it is to miss a step that can cause a fatality. Gawande quotes two philosophers who say that failure is generally for one of two reasons: ignorance - we don't know enough to prevent a problem or find a solution to one - and ineptitude - we make careless errors that can have serious consequences. Make a mistake building a skyscraper, and you may imperil thousands of lives. We can forgive ignorance. It's hard to forgive ineptitude.
What helps people master complex procedures? The simple checklist. In all the fields mentioned, the checklist - in various forms - ensures that we don't rely on the fragility of memory. We follow discreet tasks the same way, again and again, ensuring consistency of quality and safety. In the restaurant that Gawande visits, every recipe is posted in the kitchen. No matter how many times you've made a dish, you've got to follow the recipe.
Gawande's support and research on the impact of the checklist in surgery inspired the World Health Organization to adopt it in over 20 countries with staggering results in bettering patient care. The Independent claimed that it is the "biggest clinical invention in thirty years." A simple checklist.
I've spent the week thinking about how checklists can help in Jewish education and in the running of Jewish institutions. And then I turned to this week's Torah reading and suddenly saw it differently. We are in a difficult stretch of readings where detailed instructions to build the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, are outlined and then carried out by a master architect, builders and volunteers. This portable structure had to be carried throughout the wilderness and rebuilt to exact specifications each time the ancient Israelites camped. Every tribe had a place in proximity to the Mishkan, which rested at the camp's center as the spiritual heart of this desert community.
True to the sacred checklist that is created in verse after verse, we find exactly what we would expect to be written in regard to its execution:
• "These are the records of the Tabernacle...which were drawn up at Moses' bidding..." (Exodus 38:21)
• "Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks - as the Lord had commanded, so they had done - Moses blessed them" (Exodus 39:43).
• "This Mose did, just as the Lord had commanded him, so he did" (Exodus 40:16).
We are privy to this information so that every member of our community understands the intricacies of this structure and is invested in its centrality. Detailed instructions may be tedious to read, but when we follow them we are making a commitment to excellence, accuracy and consistency, not only in the complex areas of everyday living but also in the realm of the sacred.
March 1, 2011; 7:49 PM ET
Save & Share:
Previous: Pro-life community does not want to fund abortion provider | Next: Religion and abortion policy: The legislator's obligation