Torah for the Times

Friday, March 8 - 26 Adar, 5773

Torah Reading: VaYakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1 - 40:38)
Candle Lighting Time: 5:37 PM

Shabbat ends: 6:37 PM

Prime Suspect!



The Accounting

The second portion of this week’s double parsha, Pikudei, is a detailed accounting for all of the components of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary constructed by the Jews in the desert. According to the Midrash, some of the people were suspicious of Moses, thinking that he may have misappropriated some of the funds. The Torah, therefore, takes great pains to show that there was no impropriety in the collection and use of the contributions to the Mishkan.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, one of the leaders of Polish Jewry before the Second World War, makes an astute observation: When the Jews contributed vast amounts of gold for the construction of the golden calf, we find no record of people complaining that their gold was being misappropriated by the leaders of that effort. The contrast between the golden calf and the Mishkan is even more glaring considering the amounts of gold that were used for both and the finished product. From all of the gold collected for the golden calf, only one little calf emerged! Yet no one complained. No murmuring was heard from the contributors. However, when the contributions to the Mishkan building fund yielded a magnificent structure, they murmured! How strange!

The question of why this was so is sharpened when we realize that Moses was the most humble and selfless leader, who did so much good for the people. In stark contrast, what did the makers of the golden calf do for anyone? They were rabble rousers, from the lowest class of society. Indeed, our Sages tell us that the instigators of the golden calf debacle were the “Eirev rav” - the multitude of nations that joined the Jewish people only because they witnessed the miraculous deliverance of the Jews from the hands of Pharaoh. Their “conversion” was not sincere and they never relinquished their idolatrous ways.

Yet when they illegally collected enormous amounts of gold for this dubious —to put it mildly— project, no one seemed to care whether the funds were administered with integrity. How bizarre!

An Enigma

Rabbi Meir Shapiro does not offer any rational explanation for this phenomenon. He merely characterized it as an enigma.

There is, however, a need to understand the psychology behind this phenomenon.

In order to facilitate free choice, so that we choose to do good and reject evil, we are not able immediately and clearly to see the positive effects of our Mitzvos or the deleterious results of our transgressions. If we were able to see the infinite positive energy generated by each and every Mitzvah we perform, how could we desist from doing that Mitzvah? Even if the Mitzvah requires some measure of effort and expense, why would we not unhesitatingly do the Mitzvah? Failure to perform the Mitzvah because it would be costly in time, money and energy would be comparable to a person who foolishly refuses to accept a million dollars because he must first make a one dollar investment!

Similarly, if we knew the horrible consequences of our transgressions in advance, how could we succumb to the sin for its ephemeral rewards when we know the magnitude of our ultimate loss? Again, this is comparable to a person who knowingly agrees to forfeit his entire fortune for the immediate payment of a paltry sum of money.

Creating Balance

To allow for free choice, G‑d “had” to create a balance by suppressing the feelings of gain for the observance of the Mitzvos and loss for their transgression. This G‑d accomplished by magnifying the appeal of the forbidden behaviors and dulling the sensation of joy that accompanies the performance of a Mitzvah. Indeed, the dulling pressure even can go so far as to sow doubt of the benefits of performing the Mitzvos and on their very Divine origin.

When history’s most important project was undertaken (construction of the Mishkan, which concretized the revelation at Mount Sinai) under the leadership of history’s most righteous and holy person (Moses), its holiness was so powerful that there would have been a drastic imbalance in favor of the realm of holiness. If left undiminished, that imbalance would have precluded free choice.

Similarly, immediately after the Torah was given, which introduced G‑d’s presence in this physical world in an unprecedented fashion, no human being—certainly not the Jewish people who witnessed the revelation—could possibly do anything contrary to G‑d’s will.

To create a balance, G‑d allowed for a parallel force of concealment that manifested itself in an irrational attraction to idol worship. The attraction was so magnified and intense that they were able to construct the golden calf just forty short days after hearing G‑d’s explicit command, “Do not have any other gods in My presence.” The unnatural pressure to do just that was a necessary counterweight to the natural pressure to do only that which G‑d wanted.

Will the Real I Stand Up?

In other words, whereas the true nature of a Jew is to do G‑d’s commandments and desist from going against G‑d’s will, G‑d superimposed an outside influence that can mask the Jew’s true inner G‑dly nature. The true “I” is the one that feels its connection to G‑d and all that is G‑dly.

This explains the enigmatic words of Maimonides in his discussion of a recalcitrant husband who refuses to grant his wife a Jewish divorce (Get). Since a get must be given willingly, Jewish courts may actually coerce the husband into saying “I agree.” Maimonides’ addresses the apparent inconsistency of the law. If a get requires the husband’s consent, what good is the coerced declaration of “I agree?”

Maimonides answer is that the inner desire of the Jew is to comply with the laws of the Torah. It is only his evil impulse that exerts pressure on him to not comply. Thus, when the husband says, “I agree”—albeit, under duress—that is, in fact, his true inner desire.

This also explains the statement in the Talmud, “Even the sinners of Israel are filled with Mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.” The Rebbe once asked, if the sinner is so filled with Mitzvos, where is there room for his transgressions? The answer is: on the outside. Transgression is not the natural state of the Jew; it is peripheral and super-imposed.

Skin Deep

However, human nature responds strongly to the external. We are attracted to that which our eyes can see. We must be “compelled” or prodded to look beneath the surface and discover our innate pre-disposition to doing good. Holiness runs in us as deep as the deepest chasms of the ocean, but all we can see is its surface gleam, the external temptations of the material world.

To summarize: Life is about balancing the obvious and powerful external pressures that stare us in the face against the profound deeper influences that one only finds through searching. The external, although skin deep, is in our face. The internal, while deep and potent, requires effort to recognize and harness.

This explains the enigma of the people turning to the golden calf only forty days after experiencing the greatest revelation of G‑d in this world. It also explains why some people could have suspected Moses, of all people, with misusing the funds dedicated for the Mishkan. Precisely because these were such profound and spiritually deep experiences, and since Moses was the most G‑dly person to have lived, the external opposition had to be powerfully strident.

The Façade is About to Disappear

That paradoxical dynamic of peripheral evil versus internal spirituality has reached its peak in the present day and age. The lesson we can derive from our experience at Sinai is heartwarming and reassuring in this moment of time.

From Sinai onward, we have been accumulating G‑dly light and storing it in our soul’s subterranean ocean. The evil of the past has long dissipated, either though repentance or through suffering, with its cathartic power. So, if the good is a vast ocean and the evil a mere trickle, why do we see so much of evil in today’s world? Why are there so many challenges posed by modernity? Why is the transgressive secular influence so pervasive?

The answer is that in our final thrust into the period of Geulah-Redemption, it is still “necessary” to strike a balance. To offset the imposing surge of internal spiritual energy, there is a need for a corresponding external force. In many ways, the challenge today is greater than any time previously. Our task now is to see these threats to our spiritual existence as false challenges and for us to recognize that they are not reality. These temptations do not represent the true nature of our world; deep down the world has become saturated with the G‑dly energy generated by millennia of Mitzvah observance, notwithstanding all of the hardships it entailed.

Upon even deeper reflection, it becomes evident that our generation possesses infinitely more spiritual energy than any other in history. This is so because we have the accumulated energy of all the preceding generations. And these G‑dly forces are now pushing up against the allure and façade of materialism, poised to break through to the surface and eliminate its illusive sheen.

In addition, we have to recognize that no matter how far we may think we are from the dictates of the Torah, that external self-identity belies our true inner G‑dly nature.

Our task now is to “open our eyes” to see beneath the surface and recognize that Moshiach and Redemption are right before us, even if we may not presently recognize it. Moshiach’s task is not so much to innovate but to inspire and empower us to accept the reality of our personal as well as collective existence.